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.