The ugliness of the Steubenville verdict

We have already written extensively about Steubenville, Ohio and its team of high school football players. After the trial, closely followed by media nationwide, the judge was expected to give his sentence at 10am on Sunday morning. I actively covered the decision, which was live streamed on a local news channel’s website, and have been emotionally and physically drained from the national conversation it forced us to have. What is worrisome, however, is that the real lessons of the Steubenville verdict are not agreed upon. There are still two sides to this story, while there should only be one. This just goes to show how sick a society we are, if we can not agree which side to take on the question of the repeated gang rape of a minor.

Defendant Ma’lik Richmond, here crying next to his lawyer, Walter Madison.

The sentencing was perceived as harsh by the media (more on that later), but it is important to first and foremost stress that Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, the two defendants – aged 17 and 16 respectively- were charged as juveniles, as opposed to adults. Ohio law does not impose a juvenile court for these offenses at this age; it was a specific decision of the court to charge them as juveniles. The two young men thus avoided at least a decade of prison time for their crime, and received a one-year minimum sentence into a juvenile correction facility, and the obligation to register as sex offenders once they turn 21. Let it be clear: rape is a serious crime, heavily punished by law, yet it seems offenders are let off easy due to the nature of the judicial system that makes it not only hard to press charges, but to also endure a trial. Jane Doe suffered over 100 minutes on the stand, a process that is often described by survivors as a “second rape”. The registration part of the sentence seemed to hurt the defendants the most, with Mays claiming his life “will never be the same”. So affected they were, Mays’ lawyer was seen weeping (!) worried for the future of his client. Let it be clear: Mays and Richmond ARE sex offenders. There has been ample evidence of their actions on social media, which proves they were unrepentant and unafraid. They are shameless, woefully unapologetic sex offenders, and it is a sick and twisted behaviour towards victims of sexual violence across the boat to think they do not deserve to be treated as such. They are what they are, and shall bear the scarlet letter proving they are criminals.

Judge Lipps’ conclusions left much to be desired. If Lipps was any reflection of how Steubenville treated Jane Doe, the whole county needs a refreshing course. While Attorney General Mike DeWine insisted that the defendants were taking advantage of an incapacitated girl, claiming fiercely, “they were treating her like a toy” – Lipps barely mentioned the assault at all. It was a rape trial during which the issue of rape itself was a struggle to mention. Lipps talked at length about the abuse of alcohol in teenagers, and the danger of putting oneself in a position of being too drunk to function, hereby being vulnerable to assault. It felt like Jane Doe herself was on trial for not having behaved “appropriately”, whatever it means. It felt like Lipps intended for Steubenville to be a lesson for all girls and women never to trust anyone and stay quietly at home. At no point did he raise the issue that the drinking was not the problem – this was not a DUI case – but it was that a team of football players felt like indulging in their most sadistic and primal instincts with total disregard for someone’s humanity. The intoxication was only a circumstance. In all likelihood, Mays and Richmond could have found another way around the consent problem. If allegations that the victim had also been drugged were dismissed, the question as to whether she drank that much of her own accord seemed bizarre. Regardless, as one commenter pointed out, if someone is so intoxicated they can no longer look after themselves, our ONLY response should be to make sure they get home safely. Mays called himself a friend of the victim, but let it be known that he never apologised for his actions. He only mentioned he should not have publicised the night’s events on Twitter and Instagram. In short, Mays is only sorry he got caught.

The line of defense was just as shameful. Is it really a surprise to find such disheartening and sickening responses to the Steubenville verdict when the defense attorney’s argument was “it was just a joke”? Where does one go to look for law and order when the second most heinous crime to perpetrate against a human being – bar ending their life – is so easily dismissed by representatives of the law? What message does it send to young men to see that the penalty carried for permanently ruining a woman’s life is a slap on the wrist and accolades from male adults supposedly in on “the joke”? Walter Madison, the defense attorney, based out of Akron, has a serious record as a criminal lawyer. Serious enough to understand the gravity of his clients’ actions and perform his duty without being so rudely callous and offensive towards the suffering of the victim. In a most incredible turn of events, Madison has just released a statement saying he was planning an appeal strategy, because it was “unfair” to have Mays and Richmond on the registry for life. This reaction is frankly appalling.

Screencap of CNN coverage of the verdict

We need to collectively take a stand against the mainstream media’s coverage. It is one thing to see Ma’lik Richmond’s father plead for leniency for his son – again, regardless of the severity of the charges – but why is CNN so saddened by the sentence? Why is the most prominent news outlet in the country taking sides in a criminal trial – showing empathy with the rapists? Sex offenders never had it easy in the nation, from a difficult place in the prison system to the lifelong stigma from the registry. In the Steubenville case however, CNN, hardly mentioning that a minor had been repeatedly hang raped and forced to watch videos of her ordeal, lamented that the rapists’ lives were “ruined” while they showed “so much promise”. And here we all thought that we as a society were sufficiently evolved to assume that criminals were not “full of promise”, were in fact not contributing much to society, and were usually removed from it. Only The Guardian, a foreign news outlet, expressed how appalling and toxic was CNN’s response.  Not only were those two young men coming from privileged backgrounds, but they have also consistently benefited from privileged treatment, from their coach trying to stop them from being indicted to a judge not so inclined to charge them as adults. Now that the whole country knows about their names, their families, where they live and the sordid details of what they have done, they don’t even feel the pressure of the media to accept their sentence, but not even from their community either. If anything, Mays and Richmond have been shielded from any harm or harassment that usually befalls sex offenders, and they had the gall to cry and feel sorry for themselves.

Occupy Steubenville protesters show support

It is also important to mention that, while defendants’ names are usually released after indictment, the victim, underage, is protected from any coverage. However, several news outlets broadcasted her full name in their coverage, only to take it down later once it was revealed that Jane doe was receiving death threats from the Steubenville community. Finally, with cooperation with local law enforcement, two teenagers were arrested for issuing the threats – on both Facebook and Twitter – and the Attorney General said the following:

“Freedom of speech is fine, First Amendment is wonderful. But these two individuals crossed the line. You cannot, under Ohio law, threaten to kill someone. We’re not gonna tolerate it and we’re not gonna put up with it. (…) Imagine going through a rape and then having to see things on the internet that are totally obnoxious. Now, not only that but she is threatened and her life is threatened.”

It takes a man with a strong conviction in the rule of law and the respect of persons to stand up for what he believes in and keep on fighting for the victim even though the verdict was less than satisfying and the Steubenville community failed to show support, from the moment the story reached the ears of Anonymous to today. Jane Doe, however, has learnt about the support she may not find at home but see elsewhere in the country, and asked that all donations be made to a charity helping survivors of domestic violence.
Lastly, we want to express our eternal gratitude to Alexandria Goddard, the blogger who first reported the incidents in Steubenville and expressed her opinion on xoJane this week. Without her and Occupy Steubenville, Jane Doe would have been one of those hundreds of thousands of cases that are dismissed every week, all over the country, amidst a climate that seems more favorable to rapists than it is to victims, a legal system that forces distress upon the women who dare report their assault, and the countless of those intimidated and shamed into not seeking legal retribution.

Why the horrors of Steubenville can not be silenced

A few days ago, the trial of the Steubenville, OH rape victim unfolded before our very eyes. Last August, a 16 year old girl was repeatedly raped by the members of her high school’s football team. In an unfortunate twist for the perpetrators, the actions were caught on video, with the identity of the guilty parties clearly identifiable. The victim was carried, unconscious, from party to party, where she was abused among a group of peers, none of which raising a hand or their voice to stop the horrific actions.

What is different about Steubenville as opposed to other rape cases carried out by minors is the protection the rapists are benefiting from. Hacktivist group Anonymous has taken upon themselves to release documents and information that had been hidden from media and prosecution alike, documents from not only the Steubenville Police Department, but also the school administration that had known about the rape from day one and had chosen to keep it quiet. The high school’s football team was apparently so successful and a source of such pride in the small Ohio town, that it was better to shield the perpetrators from criminal prosecution than to provide the victim with judicial retribution. It is beyond appalling: it is illegal and is awfully representative of how rape victims are perceived in society.

You can find extensive coverage on the internet, thanks to Anonymous raising trouble and the people at Occupy Steubenville staging protests at the court room in order to bring awareness to that extraordinarily specific situation. There are however three points that I would like to touch on.

1. Systematic isolation of the victim. The mother was called by prosecution during the trial and has spoken about the ordeal faced by her daughter post-assault. She has said that “(t)he daughter doesn’t sleep much and the mother said she hears her crying at night. The mother said there have been threats made toward the family, and a police office is in her neighborhood everyday.The mother also said her daughter has been ostracized by her friends and their parents who don’t want their kids around her.” The stigma surrounding rape victims is extremely prevalent in the Steubenville case. Instead of showing empathy, care and support for a teenager that has been repeatedly violated, humiliated and permanently scarred, the Steubenville community chose instead to scold her and isolate her -as well as her family – for daring to speak out against the pain she suffered, and for pressing charges against athletes that are prevalent members of the town. This is rape culture at its finest: blaming the victim for disrupting the peace. Other kids believe that something is wrong with the victim for having suffered assault, and isolate her even further by refusing to associate with her. What’s more horrifying however is a series of texts exchanged between the victim and a friend: when said friend revealed that there were videos of her assault, the victim asked her, “You couldn’t have told them to stop or anything?” In the face of peer pressure, it seems that society has willingly chosen to side with the rapists, supposedly outstanding members of the community, rather than the victim, shamed in staying home. One of the rapists’ father, Nathaniel Richmond, said the following about his son, currently charged with rape and in the juvenile system:

“I am speaking on behalf of my son, Ma’lik, when I ask you to not rush to a personal judgment. He is a good child, an outstanding student and a credit to Steubenville High School. I ask you to let justice prevail,” stated Richmond.

He then went on to quote Martin Luther King (sic) in hoping for a fair trial.

2. The debate surrounding the so-called “blurred line of consent”. Two media conglomerates are guilty for misrepresenting the victim in a way that associates itself with victim-blaming: CBS, talking about the “alleged” victim of the Steubenville rape case, when there is nothing that is alleged about the fact that Jane Doe is, in fact, a victim. This type of vocabulary, usually used by press to protect the Habeas Corpus of the presumed guilty party, does not and should not apply to the victim in a criminal case. There is ample evidence that the victim has been repeatedly raped: it was caught on photography and video, and documented on various Twitter timelines. This is not an alleged crime, where the defence is trying to prove there has been no misconduct or wrongdoing. The prosecution is going for rape charges because there has been established rape. CBS had no business implying that Jane Doe could perhaps have not been raped when the whole issue has been the blatant criminal behaviour without either intervention from witnesses or peers. Jane Doe is NOT an alleged victim, and not recognizing her status is a serious mistake on the part of CBS.

That same article relates the issue of the intoxication of the victim, also discussed in the New York Times. The issue addresses the question of consent. Said line of consent is said to be blurred, while it is not. It is extremely clear. If one person is asleep, unconscious, or past the point of coherent thought (under the influence of any substance), no consent can be given. It is clear. However, we have been led to believe, in a culture so permeated by rape apologists, that the line of consent was a blurry one and subject to interpretation, on the part of the victim for one, and on the part of the judicial system if it becomes involved. It can not be stressed loudly enough: CONSENT IS NOT A BLURRY CONCEPT. It is NOT subjective. It is NOT subject to interpretation. It is NOT a matter of discussion. It was however to be expected that during the trial, the situation of the 16 years old victim was going to be addressed: she was in a severely intoxicated state. From the New York Times article:

A state forensics investigator, Joann Gibb, methodically quoted from text messages that she said came from the phone of one of the defendants, Trent Mays, 17, and from the phones of friends and classmates. The messages described the inebriated girl as “dead” or as a “dead body” and stated that Mr. Mays acknowledged penetrating the girl with his fingers. (…)

Mr. Mays also texted that the girl “was like a dead body” and that he did not try to have oral sex with her because “she would have thrown up,” while denying that he drugged the girl and texting that he tried to take her beer away.

At one point, a friend texted to Mr. Mays, “You are a felon.”

Let the record show that one of the defendants, Mr. Mays, had acquaintances and friends themselves capable of understanding, even through the restrictive medium that is a text message, that the situation here was NOT consensual and that Mr. Mays had committed a crime. It is the defense’s method during this trial to prove that the victim was still capable of walking and talking, even while being sufficiently impaired to not remember the incident the following day, and that reports from witnesses include that the girl has been “dragged” from party to party (as opposed to walking there by herself). It is another example of victim-blaming that rapists often use a line of defence implying that unless the rape victim says “no” implicitly and clearly, the sex was consensual. It perpetuates a myth that it is an acceptable line of defense, that a judge could rule in favor of the defendant if the victim was proven to be intoxicated – or worse, than her intoxication led to the situation.

However, let’s show appreciation to MSNBC for debunking the myth of the “acquaintance rape”.

3. The obstruction by Steubenville PD and school administrators. I have previously hinted at the fact that the actions of Steubenville Police Department and school administrators were nothing short of obstruction. Anonymous has indicated that the coach of the football team had known of the rape and had “taken care of it” (as proved by a series of texts exchanged between members of the team). Coach Reno, once informed of the salacious activities of his team members, told one of the defendants he was in danger of being kicked off the team, and that he was going to “take care of it”. Any school administrator informed of criminal behaviour is under duty to immediately report it to the police. Instead, beloved coach Reno Saccoccia tried to cover up the activities and deal with it internally by sanctioning the defendants. What is clearly a breach of trust in administrators and criminal irresponsibility as an adult in charge of minors is over-emphasized by the fact that Coach Saccoccia is friends with the Steubenville Sheriff, Fred Abdala. There are now rumors surfacing all over the media coverage that the Coach is expected to resign, despite his outstanding status in Steubenville. Both Police Department and school – as well as Ohio State University, involved because an 18 years old defendant studies there – have kept quiet and have shown complete disregard for the fact that extremely incriminating information has been released by Anonymous: videos, text messages, twitter timelines, bodies of proof that the defendants thought they had deleted by the hackers had managed to find nonetheless. This begs the question – what would have happened during the Steubenville trial had Anonymous not made the files public?

The definition of obstruction of justice is as follows: A criminal offense that involves interference, through words or actions, with the proper operations of a court or officers of the court. Emphasis on the fact that obstruction is a criminal offense (criminal status 18 U.S.C.A. §§ 1501–1517). Clause 1503 offers a broader reading of the definition of obstruction: it would apply to anyone who “corruptly or by threats of force, or by threatening letter or communication, influences, obstructs, or impedes, or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice” . Coach Saccoccia intervened in the course of events as early as the day following the rape and tried to cover his team’s actions. This, according to Clause 1503, constitutes obstruction: by his actions, corruptly, he tried to cover up a criminal action. Because Steubenville is a small town that appears closer to Twin Peaks that anywhere else, Saccoccia’s sister-in-law is also the clerk for Judge Kerr, who was formerly in charge of the case (until he recused himself). Saccoccia, in a dark twist, is a mediator in the juvenile court system. When he said he was “taking care of it”, he wasn’t necessarily speaking metaphorically.

What about Sheriff Abdalla? Although the police chief has made repeated requests for witnesses of the crime to come forward, Anonymous’ Steubenville Files are accusing him of being tied to the football team through a gambling and henceforth to lean towards protecting the players. Anonymous revealed to The Atlantic Wire:

We have been working with a source who is an employee at the Spot Bar in Steubenville who we trust to provide us with solid material. This source reported that last Friday, as the “Steubenville Files” disclosure was really beginning to go global — Abdalla stormed into the Spot Bar and announced out loud: “No one says anything, no one talks to anybody.” He then proceeded to the back room of the bar to have a meeting with his “business partners.” Our source also added that far from shutting down, business continues as usual and is brisk.

The question remains: where would the victim be if Occupy Steubenville hadn’t staged protests to support the victim and shame the rapists? Would there be an ongoing and global trial right now had Anonymous not released The Steubenville files?

Steubenville is a disturbing case, not only because of the horrific facts that took place in the Ohio town, but because of the display of distrust in the judicial system to conduct a fair, objective and uninterrupted inquiry of criminal misconduct. It was up to a group of vigilante citizens to reveal the name and faces of the rapists, to expose the lack of involvement of school administrators, and to force the hand of local police to pursue an investigation when it was clearly hinted that no one wanted to go after the town’s star athletes.

We need a massive overhaul of the judicial system.

How I learned to stop worrying and love drones

Created by Tom Tomorrow for the Daily Kos

For twelve hours, fifty-two minutes and eleven seconds, Sen. Rand Paul (R- KY) held the floor of the Senate in a remarkable filibuster aimed at derailing one of the latest decisions made by the Obama administration in matters of domestic security. What is even more remarkable about this is that it was up to a libertarian, a man extremely controversial for his views on the Civil Rights Act, to stand up for the rule of law. What is deplorable, however, is the deafening silence on the part of Democrats.

Sen. Rand Paul tried to oppose the (ultimately successful) nomination of John Brennan as head of the CIA. This nomination comes only days after the Obama Administration released information implying that in cases of emergency, the Administration will be authorized to use drones to strike against US citizens on US soil. This news is enraging and extremely dangerous, yet it failed to draw the attention of the population. NDAA was signed into law on New Year’s Eve, when no one else was looking, and it was left to über conscious human rights workers and lawyers to ring the alarm, amidst the cacophony of the House Speaker reelection and talks about unemployment rates. In times of fear, of distress, and of so-called necessity, history has proven to us that civil liberties are the first to go. Everyone knows by now the evils of the Bush Administration; everyone has denounced the war-mongering, facts-fabricating ways of Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice, the escalation to a war that was doomed to fail from the get-go. The collective breath of relief exhaled on the day of Obama’s election has lulled us into a false sense of security, cradled us in the belief that civil rights violations were over, and the Bill of Rights safe and protected by the wide shouldered power of Barack Obama, himself a constitutional lawyer.

That it took a Republican – and a southern one at that – to denounce the failure of the Administration to protect US citizens from arbitrary and unlawful targeted killings is not surprising. That it came from Rand Paul in a record filibuster took everyone by surprise, most of all traditional liberals, usually rallying around Obama as the democratically elected leader that had taken a stand – as then-Senator of Illinois – against the war in Iraq. The truth is, there is no political voice loud enough to speak out against the ever expanding use of drones in US foreign policy, let alone domestic policy. It took a libertarian, overly decried by the left for his position on women’s rights and civil rights, ironically enough, to say what should have been on everyone’s mind: “Where is the Barack Obama of 2007? (…) If there were an ounce of courage in (the Senate), I would be joined by many other senators. Are we going to give up our rights to politicians?” He later elaborated:

“When I asked the president, ‘Can you kill an American on American soil,’ it should have been an easy answer. It’s an easy question. It should have been a resounding an unequivocal, ‘No.’ The president’s response? He hasn’t killed anyone yet. We’re supposed to be comforted by that. The president says, ‘I haven’t killed anyone yet.’ He goes on to say, ‘And I have no intention of killing Americans. But I might.’ Is that enough? Are we satisfied by that?”

Screen shot 2013-03-09 at 13.58.10

Courtesy of The Onion

The good news is, Attorney General Eric Holder took the time to personally answer Sen. Rand Paul’s concerns in a letter. The bad news is, the letter’s content is as much subject to concern over civil liberties than anyone should have been before and during the filibuster. Holder tried to be clear and concise, claiming, ““It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: ‘Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?’ “The answer to that question is no.” But what does Eric Holder mean by “engaged in combat”?  Those terms are clearly a call-back to the Bush Administration’s worryingly broad definition of combat and combatants, dating back to a Pentagon memo in 2004 basically referring to any Guantanamo Bay inmate as an “enemy combatant”, then clearly expanding the laws of war to anyone in Afghanistan that could be more or less linked to terrorism activities, including drug lords. The War on Terror is well and alive, carrying with it a reading and interpretation of the laws of war that could be summed up by Bush’s infamous phrase, “you are with us or against us”. Ryan Goodman, in an excellent opinion piece released today in the New York Times, explains:

In a 2010 Fox News interview, under pressure to explain whether the Obama administration was any closer to capturing or killing Osama bin Laden, Mr. Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, said that “we have gotten closer because we have been able to kill a number of their trainers, their operational people, their financiers.” That revelation — killing financiers — appears not to have been noticed very widely.

As I have written, sweeping financiers into the group of people who can be killed in armed conflict stretches the laws of war beyond recognition. But this is not the only stretch the Obama administration seems to have made. The administration still hasn’t disavowed its stance, disclosed last May in a New York Times article, that military-age males killed in a strike zone are counted as combatants absent explicit posthumous evidence proving otherwise.

Mr. Holder’s one-word answer — “no” — is not a step toward the greater transparency that President Obama pledged when he came into office, but has not delivered, in the realm of national security.

Some will claim that despite concerns from those of us on the very left, Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster was, indeed, bipartisan when Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR.) joined in. But is this enough? Will there still be massive national silence, especially from the left, regarding Obama’s law enforcement and military policies in clear defiance of the right to due process? If the 2004 – and later 2006, in the Military Commission Act – definition of “enemy combatant” has generated an outcry from opposants to the Bush Administration, where is the uproar today? Is there still a belief among the majority of Americans affiliating themselves with the Democratic Party that Obama is the anti-war candidate? Or has the war machine created such an intense feeling of fear and dread among the population that any violation of civil rights are acceptable, as long as drones are only killing “the enemy”? In every society on the verge of a democratic breakdown, signs have appeared to be massively erected in neon colors around the time an “enemy” of some sort has emerged; once distant and foreign and justifying the deployment of armed forces abroad – resulting in a bloated Defence budget – the “enemy” then moved closer to the shore, until it infiltrated the regular population.

Of course, any call against war, against military action, against violation of international law is met with extreme sarcasm on the majority of the Republicans, first of them Sen. John McCain, coming to the lectern to say the following:

“…to somehow say that someone who disagrees with American policy — and even may demonstrate against it — is somehow a member of an organization which makes that individual an enemy combatant is simply false. It is simply false. (…) “The country needs more senators who care about liberty, but if Mr. Paul wants to be taken seriously he needs to do more than pull political stunts that fire up impressionable libertarian kids in their college dorms. He needs to know what he’s talking about.”

That scathing comment said, John McCain was joined by Sen. Lindsay Graham. When asked if the question of whether the President could act on a US citizen on US soil, Graham simply replied: “I don’t think that question deserves an answer”. The problem is, it is the only question, and we, the people, deserve an answer. The irony of two formidable opponents of the Obama Administration on other domestic issues suddenly supporting the President and calling a filibuster a waste of time is not lost on the observer.

The most remarkable response to Rand Paul’s filibuster, however, came from John Yoo, the lawyer most known for releasing a memo under the Bush Administration authorizing the use of torture on aforementioned enemy combatants, children included. John Yoo is currently teaching law at UC Berkeley. Alongside McCain and Graham, Yoo was quick to denounce the filibuster as a childish maneuver that could only come from anti-war utopists with no grasp on reality:

“I admire libertarians but I think Rand Paul’s filibuster in many ways is very much what libertarians do, they make these very symbolic gestures, standing for some extreme position (…) It sort of reminds me of young kids when they first read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged and they suddenly think that federal taxation equals slavery and they’re not going to pay any federal taxes anymore.”

Once again, the irony of a lawyer agreeing to the use of interrogation techniques clearly prohibited by law trying to disprove an intervention on the very values the Constitution stands for is a little bit too unbelievable, but John Yoo has somehow worked his way into the inner circle of pre-approved legal minds that would bend the principles backwards just to fit a political machine that would have never stood the Supreme Court test otherwise. There is clearly a lack of understanding on the part of UC Berkeley to allow this man to teach, to form young legal brains, if this is the example of violation of the rule of law we are supposed to uphold. If John Yoo is fit to teach law, there is indeed something very sick in this society, where fundamental principles of liberty are constantly stampeded in order to achieve political gain. John Yoo sold out to the Bush Administration, and unfortunately is still there to tell the tale of the just war, the justifiable means to an end, the low price of the human life and the overpowering grasp of war-mongering governments on their population.

In the meantime, the US Air Force is quietly taking its tally of drones strikes in Afghanistan offline. John Brennan also took his oath of office as Director of the CIA on a Constitution that was missing the Bill of Rights. Speaking of signs…