COLUMBUS, Ohio — Two high school football players go on trial this coming week on charges of raping a nearly passed-out-drunk 16-year-old girl during a night of partying in Steubenville. Around the football-powerhouse city, some are demanding to know why at least three other teens aren’t facing charges, too.
After the athletes’ arrest last summer, one of the many rumors that swirled around town proved all too true: Three boys, two of them members of Steubenville High’s celebrated Big Red team, saw something happening that night and didn’t try to stop it. Instead, two pulled out their cellphones and took video and a photo.
The allegations shocked and roiled the city of 18,000, but prosecutors brought no charges against the witnesses, fueling months of furious online accusations of a cover-up to protect the team — something law enforcement authorities have vehemently denied.
“Anyone that they can show had firsthand knowledge and was partly in some way responsible for the event, the rape, they should be charged,” said Jackie Hillyer, president of the Ohio chapter of the National Organization for Women.
Longtime Steubenville resident Willa Wade said: “I feel personally that if they were there, they knew it had happened, they did not report it or stop it, then they ought to be brought up on the same charges as anybody else.”
The Ohio attorney general’s office, however, told the three witnesses in a letter last fall that while they may not have conducted themselves “in a responsible or appropriate manner,” their behavior “did not rise to the level of criminal conduct,” and they would not be charged.
Legal experts said it is clear prosecutors sorely need the witnesses’ testimony to make their rape case.
“This prosecutor more than anything else wants to get a conviction of the culprits and he does not want to jeopardize that single-minded goal,” said Christo Lassiter, a University of Cincinnati criminal law professor.
Ma’Lik Richmond, 16, and Trent Mays, 17, go on trial Wednesday in juvenile court in Steubenville. They are charged with digitally penetrating the girl, first in the back seat of a moving car after a mostly underage, alcohol-fueled party Aug. 11, and then in the basement of a house. Witnesses said the girl was so drunk she threw up at least twice and had trouble walking and speaking. She was also photographed being carried by the two young men.
If convicted, they could be held in a juvenile jail until they turn 21. They have denied any wrongdoing.