Sunday morning, August 12, 2012, a 16-year-old girl woke up with a hangover and didn’t know where she was. She couldn’t remember much about the night before.
She was in a basement in Steubenville, Ohio, a town that takes its high school football very, very seriously. When the steel and coal mining industries faltered some half a century ago, it threw Steubenville and its Appalachian neighbors into decline; there isn’t a whole lot going on in this 18,000-strong city on the eastern edge of the state. Football is the area’s great joy, the arena for its most passionate dramas, just like on Friday Night Lights. Football is what binds the town together—Steubenville rescheduled trick-or-treating one year when Halloween conflicted with a home game. And football is one way for a talented kid to go on to college and maybe a sports career—nine-time state champs, Steubenville’s Big Red gets attention from scouts.
In Steubenville, teenage football players can be heroes. So when summer started winding down it didn’t mean the pall of back-to-school dreariness, but the excitement of a new season. Scrimmage sessions led way to Saturday night parties, and parties meant plenty of booze for football players and everyone else, even when those parties were hosted by adults and authority figures, like one of Big Red’s volunteer assistant coaches.
This 16-year-old girl and her friends from Weirton, West Virginia, on the opposite bank of the Ohio River, were in Steubenville for those parties. But anything past about 10 p.m. and the first party had bypassed her memory. No, she remembered drinking vodka, and more vodka, and she dimly recalled vomiting outside in the dark, and. . . that was all there was.
She woke up naked in a basement, surrounded by three boys, football players. Her clothes were nearby. But she couldn’t find her shoes or her cell phone or her jewelry. Or any clue about how she’d got there or what happened.
But she’d soon have an opportunity to sift through the relics of her night. The boys beside her had taken photos and a video of their hours together, and they weren’t shy about passing them around.
The pictures and emails and texts built a solid case: A judge would declare that two of the boys, quarterback Trent Mays, 17, and wide-receiver Ma’lik Richmond, 16, had raped the girl.
Friends and fans of the team blamed the girl: She shouldn’t have gotten so drunk, and shouldn’t be ruining these boys’ lives and football prospects.
The rape trial and its press coverage split the town and set off a nationwide debate. But will it change Steubenville, teenage drinking or rape culture?
The Archaeology of a Crime
Her critics faulted her from the start: She was ashamed, they say, so she had to blame it on the boys. She needed an explanation for why she stayed out all night, they claim, so she said she was raped (never mind that her parents thought she was at a friend’s and weren’t expecting her).
Her friends helped her piece things together. They showed her a YouTube video of her in the basement, narrated by Michael Nodianos, a Steubenville High School baseball player.
And there was an Instagram photo of her naked and smeared with what Trent Mays, in a text message, acknowledged was his semen.
Other photos showed the boys carrying her by her wrists and ankles. Text messages refer to “rape” and the “dead girl.”
Social media and cell phones documented what the girl’s own alcohol-blackened mind couldn’t. By 10:30, she was slurring her words and stumbling, and the girls she’d arrived with left. The boys took her to another party, and another, even though they had to carry her, even though she was asked to leave one party after vomiting, even though she’d ended up topless and throwing up on the sidewalk between parties. One of the boys may or may not have urinated on her. Mays tried to get her to perform oral sex on him, but she was too drunk to respond. Mays stuck his fingers in her vagina in the backseat of a car; Richmond did the same when they were in the basement. Much of it was recorded.
And these images got back to her parents too. They took her to the hospital. In August 14, they marched into the Steubenville police station with a pile of digital evidence against their daughter’s assailants.
Police arrested Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond on August 22, 2012, and the case soon drew wide attention.
Blogger and former resident Alexandria Goddard, 45, documented the case at www.prinniefied.com. The boys’ defenders used her blog’s comments section to threaten and insult her and her family, and she’s being sued for defamation by the family of a football player not being prosecuted for the night’s crimes.
The online activist group Anonymous—who’d previously taken action against MasterCard, the US Department of Justice and Westboro Baptist Church—hacked the Steubenville High School football team’s website. They accused Steubenville officials of staging a cover-up. They hacked Steubenville Police Chief William A. McCafferty’s email too, publicizing a photo of him dancing in his underwear.
Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla denied the cover-up allegations and said that his department was doing its best to get information from non-cooperative witnesses. The city hired a consultant to respond the bad press.
Outsiders criticized coach Reno Saccoccia, 63, for failing to discipline his players. His response? The boys didn’t think they had done anything wrong, so there was nothing for him to punish them for. When a New York Times reporter pressed him, Saccoccia warned, “You’re going to get yours. And if you don’t get yours, somebody close to you will.”
Steubenville High principal Shawn Crosier and Steubenville schools superintendent Michael McVey declared the matter Coach Saccoccia’s jurisdiction, and not something they needed to be involved with. Mays’ texts to his friends suggest that he thought the coach would “take care of it.”
Was it Rape?
Amid local resistance, institutional ambivalence, and wide-spread outcry, the case lumbered on. Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were accused of penetrating the unnamed girl with their fingers. Digital penetration meets the definition of rape under Ohio state law.
The question would be whether the girl consented, and whether, under the circumstances, she could have consented. That is, the law doesn’t demand that the girl had to resist or had to utter the word “no;” if her drinking had impaired her ability to resist or consent, and if the boys knew it, the boys could be guilty of rape.
Judge Samuel L. Kerr recused himself because his granddaughter had dated a football player linked to the incident. Personal connections and threats against her family led county prosecutor Jane Hanlin to bow out too.
Adam Nemann led the defense for Trent Mays. From nearby Bloomingdale, Mays, a wrestler as well as a quarterback, had been drawn to Steubenville’s winning athletic programs. Ma’lik Richmond was being raised by Gregg and Jennifer Agresta. His mother, Daphne Birden had medical conditions that led her to give him up; his father, Nate Richmond, had had substance abuse problems. Richmond ran track and played basketball for Steubenville High. Walter Madison represented him at the trial.
Juvenile court judge Tom Lipps came in from Hamilton County to handle the case.
After a probable cause hearing in October, Lipps dismissed a kidnapping charge against the boys, saying that the girl seemed to have willingly accompanied them. He’d try them only on charges of rape, with an additional charge against Mays for disseminating the naked photo of the underage girl.
Ironically, Lipps banned cell phones, tablets and laptops from his courtroom. The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation had analyzed 15 cellphones and two tablets. Most of the photos and video picturing the assault on the unnamed 16-year-old had been deleted, but there were scraps for the trial. None of the pieces depicted a sexual act; prosecutors would need witness testimony to establish that.
The trial lasted just four days.
From Fragments, a Tight Case
Associate Ohio Attorney General Marianne Hemmeter argued that Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond knew that their 16-year-old victim was impaired by drinking, and that they took advantage of that to commit sexual acts that constitute rape under Ohio law.
Adam Nemann and Walter Madison insisted that any sex act that their clients may have been involved in were purely consensual.
They argued that the girl had freely poured her drinks on her own, and they downplayed the alcohol’s effect. Expert witness and University of Texas clinical psychology professor Kim Fromme asserted that her calculations showed the girl didn’t have enough alcohol in her system to make her pass out, but enough to potentially cause memory lapses. Her conclusion: The girl may have given consent but forgot about it. Lauren Marinett, chief forensic analyst with the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office, countered that Fromme had no way of knowing exactly how much alcohol the girl had consumed or when and thus couldn’t accurately calculate her blood alcohol levels at the time of the assaults, nor was there any way of knowing precisely how a specific amount of alcohol would cognitively affect any given individual.
The defense also noted that the girl refused to return to West Virginia with her concerned former friends and Weirton Madonna High School classmates, Gianna Anile and Kelsey Weaver. (Anile and Weaver were among several West Virginia residents who tried to fight the Ohio court subpoenas but were ultimately called as witnesses.) Furthermore, the girls described their peer as a habitual liar.
But football players who had been granted immunity provided the testimony necessary to convict Mays and Richmond.
Mark Cole testified that he watched Mays digitally penetrate the girl in the car; Evan Westlake saw Richmond do the same in the basement. Both testified that the girl, though not what they were willing to describe as “passed out,” wasn’t cognizant of what was going on. It was Westlake who had made the video that shows the boys laughing about how “dead” the girl looked and joking about the idea of raping her.
A text from Mays confirms his digital penetration, and records him describing the barely conscious girl as feeling “like a dead body.” Mays seems to have recognized the gravity of the situation: In later text messages he urged his peers to stop spreading the video, and asked one friend to tell authorities that the girl came over to the house and just passed out. He also communicated with the girl, begging her not to press charges because it would destroy his football career.
Several party-goers testified that the girl was drunk to the point of incapacitation, detailing her boozy journey with the boys from the shut-down party at the Belardine family home on Wilma Avenue, to the Howarth house on Westwood Drive, to the Cole house in Wintersville.
The girl remembered only the Belardine party. Her testimony took over two hours as, under the direction of state prosecutor Marianne Hemmeter, she detailed the frightening and embarrassing process of piecing together her lost hours.
One of the saddest parts: She recounted her gradual realization that Mays, who’d kept texting to check on her over the next days, was just trying to protect himself. He’d told her that he’d taken care of her during that drunken night—but he kept texting to ask whether she was going to go to the police, warning her that he’d never do anything nice for her again, and complaining that he was going to get kicked off the football team.
After lawyers wrapped up 28 witnesses’ testimony, Judge Lipps announced that he would have a verdict by 10:00 the next morning.
Judge Lipps found Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond delinquent beyond a reasonable doubt on the charges against them; he also found Mays delinquent on distributing a nude image of a minor.
The boys can be held in juvenile jail at the discretion of the Ohio Department of Youth Services until they turn 21. Minimum sentencing requirements mean that Mays will be locked up for at least two years, and Richmond for at least one.
Both boys apologized and wept when their sentences were announced.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine will convene a grand jury in April to investigate the students who further disseminated the photos and video, as well as the widespread underage drinking in the town. Officials have already begun interviews, but at least 16 people have refused to speak.
Meanwhile, controversy continues to spread: CNN has been criticized on the grounds that Candy Crowley and Poppy Harlow’s trial commentary showed too much sympathy for the how the crime and trial might shape not the victim but her rapists’ lives.
Sources on following page.