Social media under fire in Steubenville rape case

Published: Sunday, January 13, 2013 @ 12:00 AM
Updated: Sunday, January 13, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

WTOV9 in Steubenville provided content, videos, and links to this story.

Shockingly callous tweets and Facebook posts about the alleged rape of a 16-year-old girl by members of the Steubenville High School football team have drawn international attention to a small Ohio town.

An Instagram image showed the unconscious girl being held by boys holding her wrists and ankles. Students tweeted “rape” and “drunk girl” as casually as reporting what they had for breakfast.

But as deeply disturbing as those images are, there is a growing discomfort level over another aspect of the case, which is scheduled for trial before a retired Hamilton County judge on Feb. 13: Has social media dangerously intruded into the lives of innocent people?

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Anonymous bloggers and online juries have tried and convicted, it seems, half the citizens of Steubenville. Facebook pages urge Ohio universities to expel members of “The Rape Crew” or to rescind their scholarships — even when the young men in question weren’t charged with a crime or aren’t believed to have been present at the parties where the alleged rape occurred.

In this tangled moral tale, only one thing seems clear. “Social media is turning our justice system on its head,” observed Greene County Common Pleas Judge Stephen Wolaver. “It’s not the criminal justice system we have pursued throughout the course of history — unless you go back to the Salem Witch Trials.”

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said that his office, which is prosecuting the case, is getting intense pressure from both sides as protests and petition drives have been launched. “We have people who are saying ‘Charge everybody!’ as well as locals who believe the case is being tried in the social media. We are the ones doing the investigation and we have a moral obligation to try the case on facts, not on rumors.”

Area judges, prosecutors and legal experts are watching the case closely as a harbinger of things to come. “The whole new social media-type phenomenon affects the criminal justice system from all angles,” said Montgomery County Prosecutor Mathias H. Heck, Jr.

Often the perception of whether the justice system is working or not is based on misinformation and opinion, Heck said, and that information is then disseminated to a vast audience that believes it to be true.

“It may not be factual at all,” Heck said. “It certainly could have an impact on what the sentiment in the community is.”

Allegations of a coverup

Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Jane Hanlin brought sexual assault charges in August against two Steubenville High School football players, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, both 16. The Ohio Attorney General’s Office took over the investigation at the request of Hanlin, whose son, Charlie Keenan, attends Steubenville High School. He has been targeted in a Facebook page urging Kent State University “to revoke Charlie Keenan ‘Rape Crew’ member’s scholarship.”

An anonymous blog makes sweeping, unsubstantiated accusations against many Steubenville residents and students, targeting everyone from the prosecutor to the sheriff to the head football coach. The blog describes Steubenville as a “town rife with corruption, cronyism, illegal gambling and fixated upon their star high school football team.”

DeWine disputes the notion that team members are being protected because of their status as football players. “We have an outside judge, outside prosecutors, outside investigation,” DeWine said. “There’s no coverup here. There are so many rumors going around Steubenville that I know are simply not true, but we can’t comment on every rumor. We need to present the case in court.”

Experts say that social media can be beneficial as well as harmful in criminal cases, noting that the Steubenville crime might never have come to light if it weren’t for social media. Social media and technology also have helped investigators in recent high-profile cases in the Dayton area. Just 18 months ago, a Facebook post defused a burgeoning controversy over the death of 21-year-old Kylen English, who died after falling from the Salem Avenue Bridge.

In that case, English’s relatives questioned the Dayton police account that English broke a rear door window of the cruiser and jumped off the bridge, falling 30 feet. But a witness, Michael Tolliver, used his cell phone to write a post, clearly time-stamped, on Facebook: “SWARE to god somebody just busted out this “COP CAR WINDOW, JUMPED OUT THE BACK OFHIS CAR ON SALEM, WIT CUFFS ON, AND JUMPED OVER THE BRIDGE…..I CAN’T BELIEVE I JUST SAW THAT!”

In 2007, a 16-year-old Stebbins High School student realized she had been raped when she found out that male students were circulating semi-nude photos of her on their cell phones. The girl had passed out at a party after drinking alcohol and taking Xanax and woke up with her pants unbuttoned, feeling pain in her abdomen. Christopher Lemaster, then an 18-year-old senior, pleaded guilty to gross sexual imposition, a fourth degree felony, in May 2008. He has since completed his probation successfully but remains a Tier 1 sexual offender, which requires him to register with the sheriff’s office annually for 15 years.

Elizabeth Scott, a private attorney who prosecuted Lemaster when she worked in Heck’s office, said the effects of social media and cellular phones on legal cases is “huge” for attorneys on both sides. Scott remembered a defendant who claimed he didn’t like or own guns, only to be confronted with pictures of himself from his MySpace page, holding the same style and type of gun used in the crime.

Brian Wright, an attorney with Faruki, Ireland and Cox, said social media evidence is valuable in court because it is generally contemporaneous — being written or recorded at the time something actually happens. When email came into widespread use, lawyers found those messages to be a “treasure trove,” Wright said, but social media is providing an even more expansive pool of material. Young people are less guarded about their personal lives, opening the blinds to anyone who wants to look.

“They publish it to the world,” Wright said. “Today, people sort of live out loud.”

That openness can work both ways. In a case Scott prosecuted, a defense attorney wanted to use pictures of a rape victim obtained from her social media accounts that showed her drinking alcohol and partying with her friends from her sorority.

“It was horrible for her,” Scott said, even though the judge did not allow use of the photos. “People don’t realize the ramifications of what they put out there.”

‘Quicker than Mike Tyson’

Under Ohio law, failure to report a felony can be a crime, but social media presents a dilemma: Can someone be arrested for failing to report the contents of a tweet or a Facebook post?

Art Jipson, director of Criminal Justice Studies Program at the University of Dayton, sees an important moral and legal distinction between failing to report first-hand knowledge versus reading something online. “A picture on Instagram or a post on Facebook is not necessarily accurate or reliable information,” he said.

A video from the Steubenville rape may provide a case in point: In the video, which went viral after being hacked, 18-year-old former Ohio State University freshman Michael Nodianos is seen mocking the 16-year-old victim.

“She is so raped,” he said. “They raped her quicker than Mike Tyson.”

Nodianos has been a focal point for much public ire in the Steubenville case, even though both DeWine and the young man’s attorney, Dennis McNamara, said he wasn’t at the scene of the crime. At a news conference, McNamara said that his client was “ashamed and embarrassed” by his remarks, which the attorney described as “stupid, but not criminal.”

Jipson is inclined to agree. “My take is that he’s inebriated,” Jipson said of Nodianos. “That doesn’t excuse what he said, but you have to place it in the context of the larger culture where women are presented in less than flattering ways.”

For Jana Bennett, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton, the case invokes uncomfortable reminders of the 2006 Duke University lacrosse team scandal, in which the players were tried and convicted in the court of public opinion but ultimately found to be innocent.

“I’m wary of the Anonymous hacker group and the manner they have exposed people,” Bennett said. “It worries me that it’s too vigilante. It short-circuits the justice system in that they clearly conclude that certain people are guilty.

“Many aspects of social media enable an Anonymous presence,” Bennett said, “and that perpetuates the notion that we can take justice into our own hands.”