Ohio judge weighs whether to keep rape trial open
STEUBENVILLE, Ohio (AP) – An attorney for one of two Ohio high school football players charged with raping a 16-year-old girl withdrew his motion to close the trial Friday, leaving the judge to hear arguments on the issue despite not having the motion before him and not planning an immediate ruling.
Defense attorney Walter Madison previously raised concerns that an open trial could lead to potential witnesses on his client’s behalf being intimidated following intense publicity and social media commentary about the case. Madison said after the hearing that he believes the related motion to move the trial out of Jefferson County to reduce the possibility of witness intimidation or harassment would address his initial concerns about closing the trial.
“My concern, and that being that witnesses are comfortable and willing to participate in this process,” he said, “I thought that was best addressed through a change of venue versus closure.”
An attorney for the girl had said he’d be willing to file a similar motion for closing the trial, and the Ohio Attorney General’s Office reiterated its support for the closure.
Attorneys for media outlets, including the Associated Press, presented arguments supporting an open trial to ensure public confidence in the proceedings.
Judge Thomas Lipps, a special judge brought in from Hamilton County to oversee the trial, said he’d consider their statements. Lipps, who previously rejected a request to try the two players separately, plans to rule next week on motions to move the trial and delay it, and other secondary motions including a request not to refer to the girl as a victim, but rather an accuser.
The state opposes all of those motions.
The athletes are accused of attacking the girl twice after an alcohol-fueled party in mid-August in Steubenville in far eastern Ohio. Three other students who witnessed the attack but weren’t charged are expected to testify at next month’s trial. The girl attends a high school across the river in West Virginia.
The girl and her parents want the trial closed to keep evidence that a judge might rule inadmissible from becoming public, their attorney argued in a court filing Tuesday. That could include “harmful” and “legally non-relevant” evidence, attorney Robert Fitzsimmons has said.
Keeping the hearing closed also will protect the girl, who has maintained her anonymity through the proceedings, Fitzsimmons said.
The AP generally doesn’t identify people who say they are the victims of sexual assault.
Attorney General Mike DeWine, whose office is prosecuting the case, says it will be difficult enough for the girl to testify, let alone in a public hearing open to the media.
News organizations arguing to keep the hearing open say the case is already subject to speculation that it won’t be fully investigated and prosecuted because it involves the city’s popular football team. Keeping it open eliminates that speculation, according to arguments by the AP, ABC, CNN, CBS News, The New York Times and WEWS-TV.
The second defendant has asked that the case be delayed and moved but not closed.