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2 teens found guilty in Steubenville, Ohio, rape case

Defense attorney Walter Madison, left, cross-examines forensic scientist Laureen Marinetta, right, as Judge Thomas Lipps, center, listens on the fourth day of the rape trial against Trent Mays, 17, and Ma'lik Richmond, 16, in juvenile court in Steubenville, Ohio.
(Keith Srakocic)

A judge Sunday found two teenage boys guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl during a night of high school parties that was captured on text messages, pictures and videos and shared among the defendants and their friends.

Ma’Lik Richmond, 16, and Trent Mays, 17, sat silently as Judge Thomas Lipps delivered his sentence. Mays then broke down in tears.

Richmond and Mays were each charged with raping the girl, who is 16 -- once in the back of a car and again at a friend’s house. Mays was also charged with illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material because pictures of the naked girl were found on his cellphone.

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Judge Thomas Lipps heard the case without a jury.

The victim, a West Virginia girl, testified that she remembered little of that night until she woke up naked in a strange house. Her cellphone, shoes and underwear were missing, she said.

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“It was really scary,” she testified. “I honestly did not know what to think because I could not remember anything.”

She said she suspected she had been drugged because otherwise she couldn’t understand how she could have been that intoxicated.

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Two of her former friends testified, however, that she often drank too much and had a habit of lying.

But three friends of the defendants corroborated prosecutors’ contention that the girl was so drunk she didn’t know what was happening. Legally, that would mean she could not have consented to sex.

The case captured national attention by touching on issues beyond the criminal accusations. Women’s groups said the behavior of witnesses who took pictures of what was happening and joked about the “rape” of a “dead girl” was symptomatic of a misogynistic attitude allowed to flourish in Steubenville and elsewhere.

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Some compared the girl’s treatment to that of a 23-year-old woman in India who died after being gang-raped on a bus and tossed into the street in December – about the same time the Steubenville case began making headlines.

Outsiders, and some community leaders, lamented the absence of parental guidance and questioned why 16- and 17-year-olds were allowed to drift from one booze-filled party to another throughout the night of Aug. 11 and into the next morning.

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One thing everyone agreed on is that without social media, the case might never have come to court. The girl, who said she did not remember what had happened, learned about it after becoming aware of online chatter and pictures. She and her parents went to police on Aug. 14, and Mays and Richmond were arrested eight days later.

The verdict followed days of graphic testimony and eyewitness recollections portraying a night of high school parties that turned ugly, for the girl at the center of the case and eventually for the boys who chronicled the events via text messages, pictures and videos and who later tried, futilely, to erase the communications.

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Those online exchanges were key to the prosecution and revealed an indifferent attitude toward the girl as she became so intoxicated that she could barely speak or walk. She vomited repeatedly, once while sitting half-naked in the middle of the street, several witnesses said.

The text messages also raised questions about whether the coach of the locally revered Steubenville High School football team, Reno Saccoccia, tried to quash the accusations to protect his players. Joann Gibb, an agent with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, who was responsible for examining students’ cellphones and retrieving data from them, testified that Mays texted a friend and told him the coach “took care of it.” “Like he was joking about it so I’m not worried,” Mays added.

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Other messages Mays sent from his phone and read in court by police indicated an attempt to craft a story of what had occurred as pictures, tweets and videos from the night circulated online and allegations of wrongdoing percolated.

“Just say she came to your house and passed out,” he wrote to one friend, whose home was where the girl ended up, naked and unmoving on the floor with both defendants performing sexual acts on her.

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Two witnesses, both friends of the defendants, said they saw the accused sexually assault the girl and used their cellphones to capture images of it. They were among three eyewitnesses granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for testifying, a decision that angered victims’ advocates who said witnesses should have been charged with failing to report a crime.

One of the three, when asked why he did not try to stop what was happening, testified that he did not realize it was rape. “It wasn’t violent,” he said. “I didn’t know exactly what rape was.”

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The girl, who lives a few miles away in the neighboring town of Weirton, W.Va., was described by friends as becoming extremely intoxicated very quickly as she downed vodka drinks. Her friends testified that she rejected their attempts to remain with them and instead staggered drunkenly away with the defendants and their friends.

Text messages sent by the girl and read aloud in court bolstered prosecution arguments that she was too intoxicated to know what had happened and hence was incapable of consenting to anything.

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“Oh my God, please tell me this isn’t true,” she wrote in a text message to a friend after she began hearing of the sex acts through on-line chatter and pictures. “Who was there who did that to me?”

Protesters staged several demonstrations in Steubenville after the case broke, accusing officials in the struggling town of 18,400 of not doing enough to pursue further charges. But city officials said it was unfair to let the actions of a few defame the entire town.

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“This could be anywhere in America,” said the city manager, Cathy Davison. “Unfortunately, it was here in Steubenville.”

tina.susman@latimes.com

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matt.pearce@latimes.com

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