Viewpoint: Don’t Rush to Judge on Steubenville

Our emotional response to this rape case erodes the pursuit of justice, for both the victim and the accused

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Thomas Ondrey / The Plain Dealer / The Plain Dealer

People protest at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Steubenville, Ohio, on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013. Authorities investigating rape accusations against two high school football players in eastern Ohio launched a website Saturday as interest in the case has ballooned, an extraordinary step designed to combat the misperception "that the football team runs the city," the city manager says.

Anyone questioning the idea that brutality toward women is a cultural universal might look no further than Ohio. Echoing the protests sweeping across India in recent weeks following the rape and murder of a 23-year-old New Delhi student, the tornado of outrage in Steubenville, Ohio, over an alleged rape of a 16-year-old girl by two high school football players last August has swept through social media, scattering rage and snap judgments like debris over an episode of enormous gravity that now may never be fairly resolved in a court of law.

The alleged rape in Steubenville came to widespread attention through Twitter accounts and cell-phone photos publicized by the hacker group Anonymous. And while the case elicits an understandable mix of revulsion and anger, the resulting media blitzkrieg is problematic, and not just because it represents a rush to judgement. Above all, our criminal-justice system is grounded in the presumption of innocence and the guarantee of an impartial trial. This is good for defendants — and also for victims.

Our legal history is full of defendants tried in the court of public opinion and later found to be innocent. Cases such as the Central Park Five, a group of teenagers excoriated by the New York City press for a brutal gang rape in the 1980s and wrongly convicted, and the 2006 instance of three Duke University lacrosse players being falsely accused of the rape of a stripper suggest that media trial by fire can happen to people across the socioeconomic spectrum.

(MORE: Amherst Rape Scandal: What We Get Wrong About Sexual Assault on Campus)

But we need to worry about more than just the falsely accused. An equally important reason for caution is the potential harm to the victim from a public rush to judgment. Where victims’ rights are concerned, it turns out that often the best offense is a good defense. In Delhi, the alleged rapists were interrogated at length by police, without any legal representation. Following the regional bar association’s public refusal last week to represent the defendants, a melee broke out in court: one lawyer challenged his colleagues not to defend “barbarians,” and a group of female lawyers questioned the accused’s right to legal counsel. In Steubenville, lawyers for the accused are considering asking that the trial be moved, because not only have the defendants received threats, but so have the defense counsel and potential witnesses.

These kinds of emotional responses erode the transparency so essential to the pursuit of justice. Even worse, they raise the chances that a guilty defendant will one day go free on appeal on the grounds of an unfair trial. And when this sort of judicial malfeasance occurs, we subtly (but inevitably) begin to shift the focus of our concern from the victim to the perpetrator, imagining other what-if scenarios in which an innocent person might be accused. It lets us off the hook, and where sex crimes against women are involved, the underlying cultural attitudes that led to the real (or sometimes only perceived) wrongdoing in the first place — attitudes such as the hero worship of high school and college athletes in the U.S. and the widespread contempt for female children in India — continue unchallenged. This can’t possibly help anyone.

(MORE: Rape in India: A Result of Sex Selection?)

We don’t know what really happened in Ohio. Or even in India, for that matter, though we may think we do. And that’s the point. In the best of circumstances, righteous anger and social media can be galvanizing forces for change, but they can combine in a toxic brew that undermines justice for victims and defendants alike. Our episodic spasms of outrage need to be coupled with humility about the limits of our knowledge and a respect for the legal process we claim to revere.

Vigilante justice — by violent mob or Twitter feed — is no justice at all. Pictures tell a thousand words, but in the age of social media, they may sometimes tell the wrong story.

448 comments
FionaBeswick
FionaBeswick

I don't think any of the witness testimony can be trusted. The boys who spoke against the defendants, one and all, were under threat of prosecution themselves. Consider their states of mind. Very young, bewildered, surrounded by scowling and scary adults, who make it clear that if they don't testify, they'll be up there too. So the testimony better be good. They have exaggerated and even lied to please teacher so they won't be punished. If I'd been them, I'd have been scared to death. A party; too much to drink; someone goes too far...or do they? Well, parents are angry. The news is everywhere. words like 'horror' are being bandied around. Ma'lik's testimony flatly contradicted the boy in the car, the one who had conveniently deleted the pictures he took of the 'assault'. Also, that infamous photo: it was supposed to be the boys carrying the girl out of a door. If so: what door? Why are they facing each other? If you were carrying her out, one boy would be facing forward. There is another boy there, too. They are all clearly standing still. And is the boy on the right actually Trent? According to Ma'lik and also in court testimony, this oicture was a joke, taken with the girl's participation. She was so drunk one boy wanted to snap it. "Let me get a picture of this drunk bitch" he said. Not nice to say bitch, but then it seems to be used by teens a lot, including by girls.

OhTheHumanity!
OhTheHumanity!

Hi Gwenno. Don't rush to judgment about Erika's article. LOL. For better or worse the mainstream media largely repeats stories already in the public domain. There is very little investigative journalism these days. For better or worse the void is filled by bloggers and groups like Anonymous.

Gwenno
Gwenno

Hilarious how absolutely SILENT the mainstream media has been in the last week or so regarding this case....Miss Christakis, Methinks you were on to something...

cmounty
cmounty

blueskybruce must be reluctaznt to give up his Rape Crew card.

blueskybruce
blueskybruce

Gee since the "victim" was reportedly getting more and more "drunk" throughout the evening, I have to wonder how that happened? Did the rapists pour more alcohol down her gullet? also I wonder why none of those witnesses did not testify about the girl, during her more lucid moments  insisting on being taken home?...Raped INDEED!

timeman
timeman

@JoeyOrtega, There was an infamous case of a NYPD officer who attacked a suspect in this fashion and admitted his guilt:http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/563441.stm

Prosecutors, who described the act as the worst case of police violence in New York's history, had asked for the maximum sentence of life imprisonment without parole. They said Volpe had boasted about the attack to colleagues, waving the stick he had used and telling them that he had broken a man down.

"I hurt many people. I was - and still am - ashamed ... I am extremely sorry," Volpe said in a statement to the court that convicted him earlier this year.

Another New York police officer, Charles Schwartz, was later found guilty of taking part in the assault. Two officers were acquitted in connection with beating Mr Louima in a patrol car. A third was acquitted of covering up the attack. "

It was after intense pressure that the investigation had to arrive at the end result. After all, how does a man get his rectum damaged while in a police precient? I hope you don't ever get into a position like that and no one will hear you scream nor will you get justice unless you have a security camera running.

timeman
timeman

@erikachristakis, If you read the NY Times article, you will see where I've highlighted for you since you're obviously you don't understand the words "witnesses" and "testified." If you review the screenshots from this webpage, you can see posts by the accused and others: http://mindfuller.tumblr.com/post/40087698544/comprehensive-steubenville-teen-rape-timeline.

Where are people that actually read jumping to conclusions? There's also a story of a former footballk player by the name of Busick CONVICTED of armed robbery yet he was given 5 years of probation and the County Prosector actually was a character witness:
"Leading off as a character witness on Tuesday was Jefferson County Prosecutor Jane Hanlin, whose son wrestled at Big Red with Busick. Hanlin said that this was the first time she's ever taken the stand to testify to someone's character and called Busick "one of the nicest kids ever to come out of the community."
http://mindfuller.tumblr.com/post/40087698544/comprehensive-steubenville-teen-rape-timeline

timeman
timeman

@erikachristakis...

About two hours later, the girl left the party with several Big Red football players, including Mays and Richmond, witnesses said. They stayed only briefly at a second party before leaving for their third party of the night. Two witnesses testified that the girl needed help walking. One testified that she was carried out of the house by Mays and Richmond while she was “sleeping.”

She woke up long enough to vomit in the street, a witness said, and she remained there alone for several minutes with her top off. Another witness said Mays and Richmond were holding her hair back.

Afterward, they headed to the home of one football player who has now become a witness for the prosecution. That player told the police that he was in the back seat of his Volkswagen Jetta with Mays and the girl when Mays proceeded to flash the girl’s breasts and penetrate her with his fingers, while the player videotaped it on his phone. The player, who shared the video with at least one person, testified that he videotaped Mays and the girl “because he was being stupid, not making the right choices.” He said he later deleted the recording.

The girl “was just sitting there, not really doing anything,” the player testified. “She was kind of talking, but I couldn’t make out the words that she was saying.”

timeman
timeman

@erikachristakis, continued:

The girl began dinking early on, according to an account that the police pieced together from witnesses, including two of the three Steubenville High athletes who testified in court in October. By 10 or 10:30 that night, it was clear that the dark-haired teenager was drunk because she was stumbling and slurring her words, witnesses <testified.>

Some people at the party taunted her, chanted and cheered as a Steubenville High baseball player dared bystanders to urinate on her, one witness <testified. >

continued..

timeman
timeman

@erikachristakis Your argument is a red herring. Erika, I have to call a spade a spade, and I find you extremely moronic. I find it bizarre you're actually an administrator at Harvard. To say we weren't there and somehow we shouldn't jump to conclusions is ridiculous as if in the Ohio case, witnesses haven't testified? Why not try doing research?

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/17/sports/high-school-football-rape-case-unfolds-online-and-divides-steubenville-ohio.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

AmyLunaManderino
AmyLunaManderino

"Witch-hunt." "Rush to Judgment."  Let us not forget that these terms came about in reference to the harassment and condemnation of people's actions and opinions that DISSENTED from the dominant culture views of their time. However, these boys are displaying the behavior that has been PRIVILEGED and PROTECTED by the power structures of our time.  Shining a light on them is as noble as shining a light on the religious, racial and homophobic violence of the most notorious hate groups of history.  There is a nasty, vocal, violent sub-culture of misogyny in our society - hatred of women.  It's time we all took notice AND action.  "Shall we stop this bleeding?" - Abraham Lincoln.  Thank you, Anonymous.

OhTheHumanity!
OhTheHumanity!

Hello again to viewers directed to this article by the official Steubenville Facts website.  LocalLeaks updated its disclosure to include tweets from family members of the HS football coach Reno Saccoccia allegedly discussing college football bets to be placed at The Spot Bar in Steubenville.  The coach himself is referenced in the tweets, but remember that Coach Saccoccia "doesn't do the internet".  The LocalLeaks disclosure update also includes a list of alleged phony addresses used to qualify out-of-town football players for the Steubenville HS team.

http://localleaks.blogs.ru/

Other developments are 1) media reports that images of 2 different half naked and apparently unconscious females were retrieved (after being deleted) from one of the partygoer's phone and this was part of the court hearing in October, and 2) media reports that a 14 year old girl filed a complaint of rape at a prom party attended by Steubenville HS football players in spring 2012.  The Steubenville city police chief says the alleged rape of the 14 year old is still "under investigation".  Undeterred even though his agency is not conducting the investigation, Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla announced that the 14 year old girl recanted her account and said the sex was consensual.  One must ask:  Why is Sheriff Abdalla commenting on an open investigation by the Steubenville PD?

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2260990/EXCLUSIVE-Second-girl-sexually-assaulted-prom-party-attended-Ohio-high-school-footballers--just-FOURTEEN.html


JoeyOrtega
JoeyOrtega

Thank you for being one of the voices of reason and critical thought in all this. The long demanded "attention" that is being celebrated is seeming more to come at a higher price that may eventually cost the much more longer demanded truth and justice being irreparably distorted or forever lost.  

kim64
kim64

This article is appalling. Are you blind? Did you look at the video and pictures? For someone with an education and employed at Harvard...damn your dumb!!

JehanLeo
JehanLeo

I think Author forget she is a women too, way to go lady!!! 

petercoffin
petercoffin

They outed themselves. GREAT JOURNALISM.

SurvJustice
SurvJustice

I can't get on board with this opinion and a college administrator really should know better. We have an adversarial criminal justice system with plenty of safeguards for accused rapists, outside that there should be social pressure to ensure student-athlete accountability when sexual violence is perpetrated. Also, both examples have issues of race at play, so are not obvious comparisons. TIME really should consider someone with a legal background to give an intelligent opinion on this issue.

Rachel421
Rachel421

The author seems to have forgotten - or chooses to ignore - the fact that it was the rapists who outed themselves via social media.  It wasn't Anonymous, or anyone resembling an investigative journalist, that broke the story and gave the names of the the attackers.  Apparently this author has a problem with the fact that nothing has been said about the rapists that they didn't say about themselves.  Equally damning is the reality that Steubenville cares more about protecting its own reputation than even apologizing to the victim and will do whatever it can to play down this incident.

Now I'm left also feeling bad for the female students where this author works.  Heaven forbid they're ever sexually assaulted.  The faculty clearly cares more about protecting the attackers than helping the victim get justice.

feltizadehregime
feltizadehregime

What planet is this author on? Way to rush to the defense of rapists. 

cmounty
cmounty

Stuebenville was, is , and always will be the sess pool of the Ohio Valley. Anybody who is from there knows that all to well. The powers that be (sheriff,police chief, football coach and prosecuting attorney) must be quaking in their boots right now knowing the FBI is snooping around. Sure they are there to investigate the "threats" but they'll discover much more. Stay tuned....

SueBee
SueBee

Below is a link to an eloquent "Open Letter to the Students Of Steubenville City Schools" asking them to testify on what they saw August 11. The writer understands the social pressures of high school, but says that life will change greatly when they graduate.  They will want to be able to remember that they did the right thing.  Indeed, she is haunted by not believing a friend who was sexually abused by her father.

I hope that this letter will be sent to places where Steubenville teens can see it.  

Here's the link.  (I know - the web site has a provocative name.  But the letter itself is gentle and persuasive.) http://bustedbitchesandinternetstalkers.com/2013/01/10/an-open-letter-to-the-students-of-steubenville-city-schools/#comments


OhTheHumanity!
OhTheHumanity!

Hello to all who came to this article because of the Steubenville "Facts" website.   For anybody interested in judging the misogynistic culture there, here’s a sampling of Steubenvillain social media:

http://mindfuller.tumblr.com/post/40087698544/comprehensive-steubenville-teen-rape-timeline

The criminal defendants are just one subset of the backward and dangerous thinking there.  There is no "rush to judgment" about the sick environment in Steubenville, contrary to what Erika says in her opinion.  Many of its youth evidently treat women as objects and scoff at any decent behavior.  It is easy to believe there is widespread corruption and cover-ups of rape in a community where sociopathy is acceptable.

KorryAlden
KorryAlden

One good point of the article is that we all have no true idea what went on in detail.  But what appears obvious can be condemning.  That video of the commentary, as I understand it, was of a college student who had no involvement but saw the poste video tape.  The photo of the two males holding the arms and legs of the victim--that is something I would call condemning.  Boasting tweets about what they had done, I would call condemning.  It will be interesting how or if this evidence will come in at trial.  I would love to know who cooperated and received immunity.  Wonder if one of the prosecutor's children had any involvement.  Allegedly one of the sites was his home. 

JoshuaOzersky
JoshuaOzersky

I guess this lady hasn't seen the video of one of the rapists bragging about it for half an hour.

AmyLunaManderino
AmyLunaManderino

Another sign of how out of touch with reality the town of Steubenville is...their infamous "Steubenville Facts" website was created with the intent of rehabilitating the town's reputation.  When I read it, my first thought was, "Wow, soulless defensive posturing lacking in any expression of empathy for the victim is actually institutional in that town.  No wonder this happened."  

Remember when the Sandusky scandal broke?  Penn State at least had the sense to publicly express sympathy for the teenage victims...and that was way before Sandusky was convicted in a court of law.   But Steubenville is so clueless and arrogant that they only thought to protect themselves.  I guess you have to be a boy raped by a 60 year old man to be believed, but a 16 year old football star can rape whatever girl he chooses, because no one will believe her, even after photos, videos and tweets of the incident are circulated.

Just keep digging that hole deeper, Steubenville, the world is watching.

lmvotaw
lmvotaw

I think it's worth noting this article is posted in Time's "Opinion" section. As such, this article should be considered an opinion piece not a news article. Why would Steubenville post this on their "fact" page? Obviously those in Steubenville have a had time differentiating between fact and opinion. Maybe this is why there have only been 2 arrests.

OhTheHumanity!
OhTheHumanity!

The "official" Steubenville website about this atrocity leads off with this garbage article. Shameful that author Erika and the Steubenvillains are apologists who tolerate violence against women while hiding behind the facade of lofty ideals. Local Leaks has more credibility than all of them combined. Bring it on Local Leaks!! Expose the hypocrisy of these apologists!!

ensure
ensure

You don’t get a name like “Rape Crew” from a single incident of gang rape committed upon a lone victim. The police have expressed their need to protect the families of the rape crew, as well (no word yet on how they intend to protect girls from these sociopaths.

ensure
ensure

If you roofie a girl, gang rape her, take pictures of it, urinate on her, and then cross state lines in order to dump her “dead body on her parent’s lawn when you’re finished, you might want to avoid tweeting and mocking the “dead girl that got “so raped on video.

They video taped their crime.
They posted their crime online.
They bragged about their crime.
They tweeted and FBed their garbage against the victim.
Making a tape of the crimes you have committed is not prejudicial. It's called a "confession."

AmyLunaManderino
AmyLunaManderino

I'm not sure why there is a belief that people are "rushing to judgment" in a way that undermines our judicial principles.  From what I gather, the complaint is that the investigation into what charges should be filed has been corrupt.  This is a reasonable "judgment" based on the reported facts.  Jane Hanlin, the county prosecutor, clearly should have recused herself from the case at the get go due to conflict of interest, Principal Crosier trusted Coach Saccoccia to determine if there was a need for disciplining the students and his investigation consisted of asking the students themselves if they did anything wrong.  This is the same coach who threatened reporters with physical violence in response to being questioned about these events. It's not the social media that's undermining basic principles of jurisprudence here.  Clearly, something is rotten in the town of Steubenville.  Social media was simply the vehicle to shine a light on that corruption. And Michael Nodiamus, the boy in the 12 minute video is being judged, rightly, on his own words.  Whether or not he participated or witnessed any assault, he is clearly displaying signs of charismatic sociopathy, a diagnosable mental illness.  This alone should be cause for questioning his academic scholarship at Ohio State, not to mention the shame and disgrace he brought to the University.