Steubenville, Ohio has been found guilty, and its role in a sexual assault of a young woman has succeeded in adding to a long list of legal and moral travesties.
It wasn’t enough that ABC aired a rosy profile of one of the now-convicted rapists before the trial, emphasizing his happy mood the night of the rape and his football career. Instead, CNN anchor Candy Crowley and correspondent Poppy Harlow talked about how hard it was to watch the convicted rapists break into tears, given their good grades and, again, their football-playing prowess. NBC’s Ron Allen spoke eloquently about the boys’ “dreams” of college and, again, their football skills now wasted by their convictions. And, of course, the AP, USA Today and Yahoo stories about the convictions all led off with how the victim in the case – of whom the boys were convicted of raping – was reportedly drunk on the night in question. The convicted rapists’ intoxication, or lack thereof, was not, apparently, editorially important.
Generally speaking, the news media don’t lament the theretofore bright futures of young men (or women) convicted of other violent crimes, such as the killing of girlfriends or executing down-on-their-luck job-hunters. They don’t grieve at the loss of college football careers for kids convicted of drug-related offenses, or empathize with would-be murderers who break down in tears when faced with consequences for the crimes they committed. They don’t assign deeper motivations to the tears of men and women who must now contend with the most openly broken part of the American criminal justice system – incarceration – to which around 2.2 million Americans are currently consigned (at 730 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, the highest rate of imprisonment in the world) and which is widely recognized as minimally rehabilitative and maximally punitive.
But rape isn’t any other crime in America, or elsewhere. Statistics show that every 100 rapes in America results in only five felony convictions. It’s the only crime in which the level of intoxication of the victim is considered by some, like the convicted rapists’ lawyers and some in the media, to be mitigating evidence. It’s the only crime in which the perceived attractiveness of the perpetrators to other people or the victim is considered relevant information. It’s the only one in which we’re encouraged to sympathize with why perpetrators picked their victims – their supposed drunkenness, their clothes, their reputations – and then blame the victims for making themselves attractive targets.
And it’s probably the only crime these two boys could have committed and gotten international coverage for their football prowess and the supposed harm that the victim – not the two rapists – did to their team. But when everyone is done being sympathetic to two convicted rapists whose own bad decisions – not those of the victim, or those made within the criminal justice system – put three promising young lives on very different paths than the ones on which they started that terrible night, maybe then they can give some thought to the young girl. It is she, whose body was violated by two boys and hundreds of thousands of strangers, who has to walk into a school and among residents of a town where some people want her not just shamed for her own sexual assault but dead for reporting it. For her, the few memories of that night but the many of its extended aftermath cannot be erased.
And then, there’s Alexandria Goddard’s role and the state attorney-general’s call for a grand jury, to investigate how “bystanders” on social media sites might have exacerbated the travesty.
ALEXANDRIA GODDARD: He stated that the investigation can’t be completed until they convene a grand jury to determine if other charges can be brought forward.
AMY GOODMAN: And why has this taken so long? Can you go back to August, Alexandria, and just give us a timeline? Explain what happened and when you came to know and make public what you knew.
ALEXANDRIA GODDARD: I came to know about it on August 22nd, the date that the two were arrested. The incident occurred on August 11th. And I believe in October, November, sometime, they had the probable cause hearing. And, I mean, it’s a juvenile matter. And the trial was yesterday. But I came to know of it on August 22nd.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what actually took place. Go back to Steubenville, where you are from, and talk about what happened.
ALEXANDRIA GODDARD: There were various end-of-the-summer parties, and the victim was alleged to have been at three different locations, and the rape occurred at the last location. All of these kids were tweeting about the state of her sobriety and taking pictures, sending them back and forth. But that’s what happened. I mean, there were just several parties, and she was at various parties that evening with the two that were convicted yesterday.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about the role of cyber-activists in exposing what happened. In January, we spoke to, well, he called himself “X,” a member of the hacktivist group Anonymous, using a pseudonym.
“X”: I think it’s apparent to anybody who can stomach watching it for the entire 12 minutes. I, myself, here at our location—we’ve been working night and day on this operation, and I’ve watched it at least a dozen times, and it makes me sick each time we watch it. I think it speaks for itself.
AMY GOODMAN: He’s talking, of course, about this video. However, special prosecutor Marianne Hemmeter claimed the actions of the cyber-activist group Anonymous put more pressure on the rape victim.
MARIANNE HEMMETER: No matter how you cut this case, she was the center of the storm. And it wasn’t just Steubenville or Ohio; it became international. She’s a 16-year-old girl. She didn’t want to go forward on charges. She knew something bad had happened. But she was piecing it together like everybody else. And here is a girl who’s 16 who’s going to have to testify to the most intimate details of her life, some of which might be embarrassing. And to have not just a local stage, but an international stage, was unbelievably pressure-filled for her—and other witnesses. You know, we had pretty good working relationships with some of the witnesses that you heard from, but once Anonymous hit, there was a chilling effect.
AMY GOODMAN: That was special prosecutor Marianne Hemmeter standing next to Ohio’s attorney general, Mike DeWine. Alexandria, your response?
ALEXANDRIA GODDARD: You know, those—the kids put it on the Internet, and the Internet is an international audience. You know, I believe that Anonymous did bring attention to the case, and—you know, but it’s also empowered others to speak out and demand that justice be meted out.
Back in December, 2012, the attitude about the role of the internet in the incident and its aftermath was a little less positive.
It’s hardly unprecedented that unsavory behavior by local athletes combines with small-town wagon-circling (especially in a dying steel whose population peaked in 1940, and whose current total of about 18,000 is below the level it reached 100 years ago) to create a situation that causes tension locally. Of course, as The New York Times reminded us (in a story that caught Anonymous’ attention), the apparent crime itself unfolded over social media with various pictures, tweets and video showing pieces of the party itself that is the center of the case, or reaction to it. Apparently, as often happens, no one thought putting up this stuff for the world to see, theoretically, would result in them seeing it, in practice, thus result in a big-paper story that exposes many of the ills the people in town would rather not talk about with outsiders. Live by the tweet, die by the tweet.
Anonymous and KnightSec have added a big dimension to this, with its threat to reveal every bit of personal information it can find on everyone it identifies as a culprit in the rape case (which, formally, involves two players who will face trial on Feb. 13) by Jan. 1 if those folks don’t reveal themselves and apologize to the high school girl identified as the victim. Anonymous already has its own site that reveals all sorts of stuff about these folks, though I’ll let you find that yourself, what defamation lawsuits already out and about (even if they haven’t all been successful) filed against those who posted what the plaintiffs said was false information.
The establishment media could have helped to heal, but instead it took a misogynistic line.
AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, CNN covered the news of the guilty verdict in the Steubenville case in a way that raised some eyebrows. Correspondent Poppy Harlow lamented that the “promising” lives of the rapists had been ruined.
POPPY HARLOW: Incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened, as these two young men, that had such promising futures—star football players, very good students—literally watched as they believed their life fell apart. One of—one of the young men, Ma’lik Richmond, when that sentence came down, he collapsed. He collapsed in the arms of his attorney, Walter Madison. He said to him, “My life is over. No one is going to want me now.” Very serious crime here, both found guilty of raping this 16-year-old girl at a series of parties back in August.
AMY GOODMAN: CNN correspondent Poppy Harlow. Alexandria Goddard, your response?
ALEXANDRIA GODDARD: My father told me when I was a child, if you do the crime, you do the time. We all know the difference between right and wrong and are responsible for our decisions. And, you know, when—again, if you break the law, you get punished for it. We all know that.
Parents, though, by thinking and acting like parents, make a bad situation worse.
The single most important message parents should get across to their children, according to Miller: If anyone ever has or ever does hurt you, you can depend on me to believe you and support you.
That’s not exactly the message that Miller’s father and many other dads have given over the years: If anybody rapes you, I’m going to find them and make them pay.
Despite the good intention behind the threat, “it pretty much shuts the conversation down,” she said. And it might make a girl less likely to tell because she’s afraid her father will get in trouble for beating up someone.
What the establishment media has also not emphasized, is its inadequate “education” from slapping social media, to defending the perpetrators, and then back to exalting itself by ridiculing its rival social media outlets, with all its reach and power.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk to you about the lawsuit brought against you, Alexandria, which also brings in your lawyer, Marc Randazza, the lawsuit about you making public these images that you got on Facebook. Can you talk about what you found and how—why you were sued?
ALEXANDRIA GODDARD: There were no images from Facebook. Anything that was posted on my website was for public viewing. All Twitter accounts were open. Nothing was private. The lawsuit itself was not because pictures were posted. It was because anonymous commenters on my blog basically dared to have an opinion about some members—you know, some of the people who were involved in the events of that night. And so, the family of the ex-boyfriend sued me and 25 commenters for defamation of character.
AMY GOODMAN: And you were named in the suit, though it was later dropped. Marc Randazza, can you talk about this First Amendment issue?
MARC RANDAZZA: Yeah, the lawsuit was filed as a classic SLAPP suit. The point of it was to shut Alexandria up and to shut up the commenters. I think you’ve touched on the fact that this was a—the people involved in this enjoy a position of privilege in the community, and they are not used to having their misdeeds laid bare. And Alexandria really picked up the ball when the local mainstream media dropped it and stuffed the story, essentially. And in order to keep that story stuffed, that’s why I’m convinced that the lawsuit itself was filed, because it wasn’t just against her—and, frankly, against her for comments that she made—but they sued her as well for allowing comments by other people, which there’s very clear federal law that renders her immune for those—for liability for those comments.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about who Cody Saltsman was—is, Marc Randazza.
MARC RANDAZZA: Well, he was the plaintiff in the case. But, you know, he is—he pretty wisely decided to drop the case, after we began to put up some kind of a fight, along with my local counsels, Mr. Nye and Mr. [Haren]. And the fact is that he actually seemed to have some level of contrition for bringing the case. So, you know, I don’t want to get too much into him, because he seems to have done the right thing.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Alexandria Goddard, your reaction to them dropping the case?
ALEXANDRIA GODDARD: Oh, you know, I was elated. No one wants to be sued. Lawsuits take up very precious time, and I would rather be out doing things I enjoy than battling a defamation suit.
MARC RANDAZZA:…I think that the grand jury being convened is a direct result of all of the sunlight put on this case. I’m convinced that if Ms. Goddard hadn’t started blogging about this and Anonymous hadn’t taken up the standard, that this case would have been swept under the rug. And I think that not only were—not only would perhaps justice not have been brought yesterday, but I think we also might have found that the limited amount of justice that was brought would have been brought only upon the heads of the two boys who were sentenced yesterday. If there is wider responsibility, well, then the investigation needs to continue. And I’m glad that it is.
And, I think that last comment helps to put this travesty in perspective: the town IS on trial, and its victims are a 16-year girl and two convicted felons.
Does it destroy a teenager’s life to take him off the path of being an adult rapist? Perhaps it is too abstractly (even annoyingly) philosophical to ask what the “better” life is—one in which you have a remote shot at being in the NFL, or one in which you might be a person who treats others decently? Still, the question is worth asking.
It’s also the premise of a juvenile-justice system. Mays and Richmond were tried by a judge who said, in giving the verdict, “I’m aware this is the first time they have been in trouble with the law. But these are serious offenses. If they were convicted in an adult court of these charges, they would be spending many years in prison.” He recommended that they be put in a youth facility. In CNN’s report, Crowley talked to an “expert” who said that the teen-agers would be “haunted” by being on the sexual-offenders registry for the rest of their lives. That actually depends on a hearing later and how juvenile authorities think they’ve done by the time they’re twenty-one. Those who are agonizing about wasted lives might spend their time on the inadequacy and, in many states, effective abandonment of the juvenile-justice system, and how kids who have done even less than these two are, too often, thrown in with adult offenders and written off. (As Rachel Aviv wrote in The New Yorker last year, “Each year, more than two hundred thousand offenders younger than eighteen are tried as adults.”) But first, they should think about a sixteen-year-old girl walking through a town in West Virginia, wondering if she has any friends in the world.
Courts are more broadly forums, the center of a community’s intellectual life. It’s where citizens ascertain the truth and debate morality. Steubenville’s court is not adequate to its duty to its community, and social media has tried to compensate. Instead of contritely admitting its inadequacies, the community has lashed out.