STEUBENVILLE, Ohio – A judge ruled Wednesday to keep the upcoming trial of two high school football players charged with raping a 16-year-old girl in the eastern Ohio county where the attack allegedly happened.
Prosecutors opposed the relocation request by defense lawyers, who said potential witnesses had been threatened and could face intimidation or harassment outside the local courthouse.
Judge Thomas Lipps kept the case in Jefferson County, home to most of the people involved, but acknowledged concerns about witness intimidation and ensuring a fair trial. Lipps said moving it wouldn’t stop protesters who could relocate or critics who could continue commenting online and through social media.
Lipps, a judge brought in from Hamilton County to handle the nonjury trial in juvenile court, also noted he has avoided media reports about the case.
Lipps said the trial should be open to the public and media. He pushed back the trial date by a month to March 13.
Adam Nemann, an attorney for defendant Trent Mays, had argued the case should be moved to a county with a bigger courthouse where crowds of protesters potentially trying to intimidate witnesses favorable to the accused could be better controlled.
“My big concern is that witnesses aren’t going to come in walking past hundreds of people wearing masks,” Nemann said.
Brian Deckert, a special prosecutor from the Ohio attorney general’s office, responded that witnesses could be compelled to testify by subpoena and would have to testify truthfully because of perjury laws.
Lipps’ decision for an open trial overruled objections by the girl and her family, who wanted to protect her identity and keep evidence that might be ruled inadmissible from becoming public. Lipps said “a transparent and open hearing” would boost public confidence in the juvenile justice system.
A lawyer for defendant Ma’Lik Richmond initially wanted the trial closed, then changed his mind. Closing the trial would have hinged largely on Richmond’s concerns – related to possible witness intimidation – since his right to a fair trial was the main issue before Lipps.
The Associated Press generally doesn’t identify juvenile suspects, but Mays’ and Richmond’s names have been widely reported by local and national media outlets.
Three other students who witnessed the attack but weren’t charged are expected to testify at trial. The girl attends a different high school nearby in West Virginia.
Richmond’s attorney had sought an order that the girl be referred to as the accuser, not the victim, because he said “victim” implies something happened to her that’s been proven. The judge ordered Wednesday that she be referred to as “the alleged victim” during trial.
Prosecutors say the girl was attacked twice after an alcohol-fueled party last August, once in a car and once in the basement of a house. The AP generally doesn’t identity people who say they are the victims of sexual assault.
The case has attracted attention because of the alleged involvement of football players in a community of about 18,000 where the football team is a source of huge pride. Bloggers and online activists also created an international stir by alleging a cover-up and questioning why more students weren’t charged.
Three students who watched the attack testified previously, including two who took a video and photograph, then deleted the images.
The Ohio attorney general’s office told attorneys for those students that their behavior may not have been responsible, but it didn’t rise to the level of criminal conduct and they wouldn’t be prosecuted.
The students who recorded the attack also were told they would have been charged if the images had been found.