Questions about uncharged teenagers are raised
COLUMBUS – Two high school football players go on trial this coming week on charges of raping a nearly passed-out-drunk 16-year-old Weirton girl during a night of partying in Steubenville. Around the football-powerhouse city, some are demanding to know why at least three other teens aren’t facing charges, too.
After the athletes’ arrest last summer, one of the many rumors that swirled around town proved all too true: Three boys, two of them members of Steubenville High’s celebrated Big Red team, saw something happening that night and didn’t try to stop it.
Instead, two pulled out their cellphones and took video and a photo.
The allegations shocked and roiled the city of 18,000, but prosecutors brought no charges against the witnesses, fueling months of furious online accusations of a cover-up to protect the team – something law enforcement authorities have vehemently denied.
One blogger wrote a post was headlined: “Steubenville Big Red Rape Accusations: The Other Perpetrators.”
“Anyone that they can show had firsthand knowledge and was partly in some way responsible for the event, the rape, they should be charged,” said Jackie Hillyer, president of the Ohio chapter of the National Organization for Women. She is among those pressing, at a minimum, for charges of failure to report a crime, which is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $250 fine.
Longtime Steubenville resident Willa Wade said: “I feel personally that if they were there, they knew it had happened, they did not report it or stop it, then they ought to be brought up on the same charges as anybody else.”
The Ohio attorney general’s office, however, told the three witnesses in a letter last fall that while they may not have conducted themselves “in a responsible or appropriate manner,” their behavior “did not rise to the level of criminal conduct,” and they would not be charged.
Legal experts said it is clear prosecutors sorely need the witnesses’ testimony to make their rape case because there is little physical evidence against the defendants and the girl may have been too intoxicated to remember much.
“This prosecutor more than anything else wants to get a conviction of the culprits and he does not want to jeopardize that single-minded goal,” said Christo Lassiter, a University of Cincinnati criminal law professor. “That’s the conservative approach. Above all else, get the main culprit. If you can get the other folks along the line, fine.”
Ma’Lik Richmond, 16, of Steubenville, and Trent Mays, 17, of Bloomingdale, go on trial Wednesday in juvenile court in Steubenville. They are charged with digitally penetrating the girl, first in the back seat of a moving car after a mostly underage, alcohol-fueled party Aug. 11, and then in the basement of a house. Witnesses said the girl was so drunk she threw up at least twice and had trouble walking and speaking. She was also photographed being carried by the two young men.
If convicted, they could be held in a juvenile jail until they turn 21. They have denied any wrongdoing.
The case will be decided by Visiting Judge Thomas Lipps, of Hamilton County.
They were charged 10 days after the party, after a flurry of social media postings about the alleged attack led the girl and her family to go to police.
The scandal brought a barrage of accusations and insinuations, mostly online, with some townspeople supporting the defendants and others complaining that the football team has unusual sway over the city. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office took over the case after the local prosecutor stepped down because her son is a football player at 700-student Steubenville High.
Big Red football is a big deal in Steubenville. The stadium, dubbed Death Valley, sits on a hill above town, and the team is a nine-time state champion, with back-to-back titles in 2005 and 2006. Man O’ War, a red statue of a rearing stallion, shoots flames from its mouth each time a touchdown is scored.
Three students – Anthony Craig and football players Mark Cole and Evan Westlake – testified at a hearing in October, just days after receiving the letters assuring them they would not be prosecuted. Prosecutors said at the hearing that Cole and Craig would have been charged if they hadn’t deleted the images on their cellphones.
At the same proceeding, Westlake was asked by a prosecutor why he didn’t stop the alleged attack.
“I was stunned at what I saw,” he said. “I just wanted – I wanted to get out of there and I -I – I didn’t know what to do, I mean.”
The defendants’ lawyers also raised the possibility that the witnesses did not know what they were seeing that night. Under questioning, the teen witnesses said that the girl was able to tell some of the boys the password to her smartphone and that they never heard her say “no” or “stop.”
“So, you don’t consider it a sexual assault?” attorney Adam Nemann asked Cole.
“I feel it’s not my place to make that decision on whether it was or wasn’t,” Cole responded. “I can just tell you what I witnessed.”
“And if this was a sexual assault I’m sure you would have called and told someone, right?” Nemann said.
“I would assume, yes,” Cole said.
On a blog run by former Steubenville resident Alexandria Goddard, some anonymous posters have demanded others at the party be charged, including football player Cody Saltsman. Saltsman sued Goddard for defamation, and the case was settled with Goddard saying there was no evidence Saltsman was involved in the alleged attack.
Then, in January, a YouTube video was posted featuring another student, Michael Nodianos, apparently cracking jokes about the alleged rape just hours after it occurred, while others in the background chimed in. NOW is demanding prosecutors charge Nodianos with failure to report a crime, but Nodianos’ lawyer said the young man had no “firsthand knowledge of the facts.”
Meanwhile, it was learned Friday that a West Virginia judge had rejected requests that three juveniles be called to testify during the expected three-day trial, a decision one defense attorney says puts his client in “a tough situation.”
The juveniles’ testimony was expected to bolster the players’ defense against charges that they attacked the alleged victim.
No legal case was cited from anywhere in the country to support the argument that the three West Virginia juveniles can be compelled to testify in Ohio, 1st Judicial Circuit Judge Ronald Wilson ruled Wednesday in an order obtained by The Associated Press.
Ohio and West Virginia law is different for a juvenile delinquency hearing compared to a criminal trial, Wilson said in the four-page ruling.
“The proceeding in Ohio is not a criminal action – it is not a criminal prosecution – and it is not a criminal proceeding,” Wilson wrote.
“A trial judge follows the law – he does not make it,” Wilson added. No law his court follows gives him the right to honor the request for the subpoenas, he said.
The request for the subpoenas came through Lipps, after defense attorneys filed motions with him asking that the three witnesses appear at the trial. Nothing in the court ruling indicates what the juveniles would testify about.
The juveniles’ expected testimony and knowledge was “material” to the Ohio case, Wilson’s ruling said.
“It puts us in a tough situation,” Walter Madison, a defense attorney representing Richmond said Friday. He declined further comment.
The lawyer representing defendant Mays said the West Virginia witnesses are trying to avoid testifying. Attorney Brian Duncan said they have refused to speak to defense investigators.
“The truth will be exposed through evidence and testimony submitted at the upcoming trial, and the same will prove that our client did not rape the alleged victim,” Duncan said in a statement Friday.
Dozens of witnesses for both sides are expected to testify at the trial. Their testimony is considered crucial because the girl was severely intoxicated that night and appeared to be passed out at times, according to several witnesses, and is not expected to testify herself.
Fred Abdalla Jr., chief probation officer for the Jefferson County juvenile court and the spokesman for issues around the trial, said as far as he knew the trial would proceed despite the ruling.
“We’re still set to go (to trial) Wednesday,” Abdalla said Saturday evening. “Unless some motion is made between now and then we’re ready to go.”
(Staff writer Mark J. Miller contributed to this report.)