The convictions this week of two high school football players in Steubenville for raping a 16-year-old girl last August amount to justice done. But little satisfaction emerges from that outcome. Instead, the whole sordid affair — including its global exposure on social media — has been, as Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said, “a tragedy.”
A juvenile court judge in Jefferson County determined that both young men penetrated the victim with their fingers — an offense Ohio law defines as rape. The victim testified that she had been too drunk to remember most of what had happened to her, much less to agree to any sexual activity.
One defendant, 17-year-old Trent Mays, was sentenced to serve at least two years in an Ohio juvenile lockup. The other, 16-year-old Ma’lik Richmond, will serve at least a year. Both could remain in state custody until they turn 21.
Other young people witnessed the assaults during a six-hour sequence that included two parties at which alcohol flowed freely. It’s despicable, and nearly unfathomable, that many of them were less interested in stopping the rape than on capturing the abuse of the victim on cell phones and in text messages, and posting the degrading images and descriptions online. Mr. DeWine said two teenage girls were arrested Monday for threatening the victim via social media.
The circulation of the photos and videos brought the case to national attention and led to demands for prosecution. At the least, the ubiquity of social media may cause other would-be rapists to conclude that accountability for their behavior may no longer be a matter of merely “he said/she said.”
According to testimony at the trial, Mays told the victim via text message that “I’m going to get in trouble for something I should be getting thanked for taking care of you (sic).” She responded: “It’s on YouTube. I’m not stupid.”
Nearly as outrageous as the physical assault was the dehumanization of the victim. In a text message, Mays compared her to “a dead body.” Another youth, who was not charged, acknowledging offering $3 to friends to urinate on the victim, insisting that “it was a joke.”
Mr. DeWine is correct to call for a grand jury to determine whether other charges should be filed. He notes that 16 potential witnesses who attended the parties have refused to cooperate with his office’s investigation. The grand jury review also should include adults who became aware of the rape but did not report it promptly.
Some Steubenville residents complain that their community has been singled out unfairly for negative attention. They are correct that sexual assault among young people is all too prevalent everywhere: A professor at Ohio State University reports in a new study that nearly two-thirds of college students she surveyed — male and female — reported being the victims of dating violence between the ages of 13 and 19.
But residents of Steubenville might ask themselves whether the football program at the local high school, despite its success on the field, commands too much influence in the community. Mays at one point expressed confidence that his coach would “take care of it” and “was joking about it so I’m not that worried.”
Some apologists for the young men assert that the victim must share the blame for her assault because she drank to excess — the contemptible “she was asking for it” defense. But Mr. DeWine correctly observed: “Rape is not a recreational activity … [Young people] need to know it is a horrible crime of violence. And it is simply not OK.”
When the judge announced his decision, young Richmond cried: “My life is over.” No, it isn’t, but it will never be the same. That’s even more true for the victim of this appalling crime.