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.
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About K
bastard banshee. devious lawyer. Lucille Bluth. probably jetlagged.

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