As the defendants sobbed and their attorneys fought back tears, an Ohio judge convicted two high school football stars of raping a 16-year-old girl and sentenced them to juvenile prison Sunday, but the case that cast an ugly light over a small town and its athletes is not over.
Shortly after Judge Thomas Lipps sent Ma’Lik Richmond, 16, and Trent Mays, 17, out of the Steubenville courtroom to begin serving their time, Ohio Atty. Gen. Mike DeWine said he had asked Jefferson County to convene a grand jury to investigate whether more people should be charged in the case.
The investigation could rope in the revered high school football coach, students’ parents and other teenagers who, according to testimony during the emotional trial, may have known about the events that unfolded the night of Aug. 11-12 but did not intervene or call authorities.
Lipps found Richmond and Mays guilty of rape, and Mays guilty of distributing nudity-oriented material of the naked victim. Richmond was sentenced to at least one year in a juvenile facility; Mays received at least two years. Each could have been ordered confined until age 21.
As both teens cried, their wails filling the crowded courtroom, Lipps noted that neither had been in trouble with the law before. “But these are serious charges,” he said, adding that if they had been tried in adult court, they could have spent “many years” in an adult prison.
“My life is over,” Richmond told his attorney, Walter Madison, who said later he would appeal.
It was a swift downfall for the teens. Last summer, they were stars on Steubenville High School’s decorated varsity football team, a source of pride in a struggling Rust Belt town with little to brag about. That all changed in mid-August, when a night of parties led to sexual encounters with a girl from neighboring Weirton, W.Va., who was so intoxicated that she could barely walk or speak.
Friends of the young men chronicled much of the night on social media, sending text messages and swapping photos and videos of the victim being penetrated by the boys’ fingers and otherwise abused. But what had begun as a source of entertainment proved to be the key to the prosecution’s case. The defense said there was no evidence the girl said “no.” The prosecution said the evidence showed she was too drunk to consent.
The messages, which included references to “rape” and referred to the victim as the “dead girl” because of her state of inebriation, were damning. So were three eyewitness accounts of watching the girl being assaulted in the back seat of a car and in the basement of one of their friends’ homes. Two of them admitted taking pictures of the incidents.
The victim, who testified Saturday, said she was too drunk to know what had occurred. She recalled waking up naked in a strange house and learning what had happened only after seeing text messages and viewing pictures and videos posted online from that night.
“Oh my God, please tell me this isn’t true,” the victim texted a friend after she began hearing of the sex acts through online chatter and pictures. “Who was there who did that to me?”
The case touched on a range of social issues, among them teen drinking, abuse of social media, parental responsibility and youthful ignorance of what constitutes rape.
In one of the more striking court exchanges, a prosecution witness who admitted seeing one of the rapes said he didn’t try to stop it because he did not know it was rape. “It wasn’t violent,” he explained. “I didn’t know what rape was.”
“It’s tragic, but it’s interesting with all these different factors involved,” said Ric Simmons, a former assistant district attorney in New York who is now a law professor at Ohio State University.
Simmons said he wasn’t surprised by the verdicts, calling the cyber-evidence a “gold mine for prosecutors.” “The texts were sort of the final nail in the coffin,” he said.
But Simmons was struck by the apparent ignorance of what defines “rape” among the teenage witnesses. “I think that this is, unfortunately, a pretty common view,” he said. “I hope it’ll be less common after this case.”
The attorney general agreed, lamenting what he called an “unbelievable casualness about rape and about sex.”
“This is not a Steubenville problem,” DeWine said. “This is a nationwide problem. This is a societal problem.”
He and prosecutor Marianne Hemmeter also criticized the use of social media to re-post humiliating videos and pictures about the case, which they said fueled rumors, made witnesses reluctant to appear in court and victimized the girl over and over.
“It became international,” Hemmeter said, calling the pressure on the girl as a result of those posts “unbelievable.”
DeWine said his investigators had reviewed 396,270 text messages, 308,586 photos and 940 video clips.
Before sentencing, Richmond and Mays made statements in court, where the seats were filled with friends and relatives of the defendants and the victim.
“I would truly like to apologize,” Mays said. “No pictures should have been sent around, let alone have been taken.”
Richmond broke down in tears as he stood to address the victim’s relatives. At one point, he cried loudly on the shoulder of a court employee. “I had no intention to do anything like this, and I’m sorry to put you guys through this,” he said.
His father, Nathaniel Richmond, also spoke, relating his own struggle with alcohol and saying he felt responsible for his son’s actions because he had not been a father figure. “I’m going to bear this pain with him and everyone else,” he said.
Madison noted that the vast majority of incriminating text messages presented in court were not sent by his client and made clear he felt the verdict was unjust. “He’s devastated,” the attorney said of Richmond.
The victim’s mother released a brief statement tinged with anger at the defendants and giving no hint of forgiveness. “You displayed not only a lack of ... compassion but a lack of any moral code,” she said. “I have pity for you both. I hope you fear the Lord, repent for your actions, and pray hard for his forgiveness.”
Times staff writer Matt Pearce in Los Angeles contributed to this report.