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Rape trial of Steubenville teens set to begin

As their classmates take graduation exams in the high school down the road, two Steubenville, Ohio, teenagers face trial Wednesday on charges they raped an intoxicated girl, an accusation that has enraged victims’ advocates nationwide, embarrassed the town, and raised more questions than the case is likely to answer.

Where were the parents that night in August, when dozens of teenagers visited various booze-filled parties until the early hours of the next morning? Why didn’t witnesses, who acknowledged watching a sex act being performed on an apparently unconscious girl, intervene? How could prosecutors not bring charges against those witnesses, and against an 18-year-old Steubenville High School graduate captured on video laughing about what he called the “rape” of a “dead girl”?

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Late Tuesday, the defense scored a victory when a judge ordered two reluctant witnesses, who are the alleged victim’s close friends, to testify. The witnesses live in West Virginia, a few miles away from Steubenville, and this week a West Virginia judge had said there was no law compelling them to testify. The judge reversed that ruling Tuesday. In addition, the alleged victim, who also lives in West Virginia, was expected to take the stand.

The defense believes that her friends’ recollections will help defendants Ma’Lik Richmond and Trent Mays by raising questions about the girl’s intentions when she set out on Aug. 11 to join other teens for a night of parties attended by several of Steubenville High School’s star athletes. They included Richmond and Mays, both 16 at the time, who were on the high school football team, a source of great pride in the struggling, onetime steel town about 30 miles outside Pittsburgh.

But late that night, the partying went awry, according to three teenage boys who testified at a hearing in October to determine whether there was enough evidence to charge Mays and Richmond. The girl became so drunk that she sank to her knees in the street and vomited, could barely speak and needed help walking as she and other teens left one house and headed to another to continue partying.

The boys, who were friends with the accused, testified to two different assaults: one in the back seat of a car as they drove between parties, and the second in the basement of a home as the girl lay naked and unmoving on the floor. Two of the witnesses said they videotaped portions of the assault.

“Being stupid,” one of them, who is 17, said when asked why he pulled out his camera. “Not making the right choices. I don’t really have a reason.”

Another witness, 18, said he “tried to tell Trent to stop” when he saw him assaulting the naked girl, who by the end of the night was apparently unconscious. “I told him, you know, ‘Just wait ‘til she wakes up if you’re going to do any of this stuff. Don’t do anything you’re going to regret,’” he said. He then took pictures of what was happening, “because I knew it was wrong,” he testified, referring to what happened to the girl.

Neither of them has been charged with failing to report a crime or with pandering, because police said they wiped the images from their cellphones before they could be subpoenaed. Nor has the third witness, 17, who did not take pictures but who said he was “stunned” at what he saw.

“I just wanted — I wanted to get out of there and I — I — I didn’t know what to do,” he stammered when asked why he left the house where the second rape is alleged to have occurred.

Defense attorneys for Mays and Richmond say nobody ever heard the girl say “no” and that there is no evidence of rape. Prosecutors counter that the girl could not have said “no” because she was too intoxicated, and that she was too incapacitated to consent.

Women’s groups and victim’s advocates say the witnesses should have been charged with a crime. They also want the 18-year-old filmed joking about the alleged rape to be charged, saying his words indicate he knew exactly what was going on and may have been a participant.

But the man in that video, Michael Nodianos, whose family hired an attorney after the 12-minute clip was posted online, has insisted he was not where either of the alleged rapes occurred and was merely drunkenly repeating what others had told him.

The case has gained national attention since it broke in August. It was the subject of a “Dr. Phil” show in January, in which defenders of the witnesses erupted in heated arguments with others who said the teens’ behavior showed that something is rotten in Steubenville.

One thing everyone agrees on is that if it weren’t for the flurry of text messages, tweets, pictures and videos shared among teenagers on social media that night, the case might never have reached a courtroom.

The alleged victim has said she learned what happened only when she became aware of the online chatter the next day. By the time she and her parents went to police, the girl had showered, and the various partygoers had deleted incriminating posts from their online social media accounts and from their phones.

But blogger Alexandria Goddard, who grew up in the area, became fascinated by the case after seeing a report of the arrests of Mays and Richmond on Aug. 22. She used her online skills to retrieve some of their outdated posts and began reporting on things that she said the local media and police were ignoring.

“I think what upset me most about the entire thing was that all these kids were tweeting about it with absolutely no empathy or compassion. I was disgusted,” Goddard said in a telephone interview with the Los Angeles Times. “In any other universe, they would have all been charged.”

Ohio Atty. Gen. Michael DeWine said he’ll decide after this trial is over whether more people should face charges.

In the meantime, Steubenville officials are trying to prevent the entire town of about 18,400 people from being dragged down by the case, which has brought hundreds of protesters to the courthouse at various times and spurred online petitions for more prosecutions.

“A few individuals who played football have ruined it for a lot of people,” said City Manager Cathy Davison, adding that Steubenville has had to hire a Washington, D.C.-based crisis manager at $20,000, not a small amount in this economically depressed town.

Davison described the alleged crime as a “horrendous act in any shape or form,” but said protesters clamoring for more prosecutions might be expecting the wheels of justice to turn more quickly than is realistic, given the reluctance of witnesses to come forward and their attempts to wipe clean the online evidence.

”You see TV dramas and all the evidence is played out in an hour. I think a lot of people live their lives on what they see on TV,” said Davison, adding that whatever comes of the trial, at least it should call attention to the need for parents to keep closer tabs on their children.

”Parents need to step up and say, ‘You will have a curfew,’” she said. ”If your kids are out at 2 or 3 in the morning, why?”

Dozens of witnesses are expected to take the stand during the trial, which is being heard by a judge without a jury.

tina.susman@latimes.com

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