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Sunday, July 13, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 2/9/2013

Steubenville rape case has plenty to make a person sick

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST

What allegedly happened in Steubenville, Ohio, makes me sick.

The reported rape of a 16-year-old girl is bad enough. But the fact that her apparent sexual assault and degradation were documented by peers for fun and for cyberspace voyeurs makes these ugly accusations unbearable.

Add the reluctance of anyone in the tightly knit community to divulge much about the alleged assault — because it evidently involved star football players in a town that worships them — and the affair becomes even more sordid. But it may soon be out in the open.

The rape case, headed for a public trial in juvenile court next month, has a parallel elsewhere. The brutal gang rape and death of a young woman in New Delhi in December made global audiences recoil.

In Steubenville, it’s alleged that kids either sexually violated a young girl or posted tweets, photos, and videos while passively watching the crime unfold. The victim apparently was too drunk to resist, and only became aware of the assault by the online images that circulated afterward.

The partying minors took lots of pictures. More than a dozen cell phones and iPads were confiscated by authorities. But as quickly as the incriminating photos were posted, they reportedly were deleted.

One Instagram photo, showing what appears to be the unconscious West Virginia girl dragged by her hands and feet, is still online. So is the unsettling YouTube video of a former Steubenville High School student laughing about rape.

The gritty steel town, with little to boast about but high school football, is squirming. Locals consider themselves under siege. Many are circling the wagons, ever loyal to Big Red football.

That blind allegiance has tongues wagging far beyond Steubenville. When the blue-collar enclave closed ranks around the demigods on its team, regardless of whether they were involved in a rape, it looked like a collective cover-up to save face.

It seemed that many people were willing to ignore reports of repugnant behavior if the juveniles played football. A defensive, almost combative, coach didn’t help perceptions that the community viewed the accusations against the celebrated few as annoying distractions.

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office, which is overseeing prosecution, also provoked questions about propriety in the case. In what has been called a highly unusual move, the office sent letters to lawyers representing three student witnesses for the prosecution.

The letters suggested that the teens, two of whom admitted photographing or videotaping the victim, were off the hook for their actions. Not surprisingly, evidence linking the partygoers to the scene couldn’t be recovered.

The boys got their apparent reprieve just before testifying against two teammates charged with rape. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine denied that the witnesses were granted immunity in exchange for cooperation.

But informing each player who is called to testify that although he “may not have conducted himself in a responsible or appropriate manner, his behavior did not rise to the level of any criminal conduct,” certainly seemed to preclude prosecution.

Prosecutors maintain deleted evidence is the only reason the teens were not charged.

The drama unfolding along the banks of the Ohio River is seemingly rife with extenuating circumstances. Fortunately, appeals to close the rape trial to the public were rejected.

Too much has been kept under wraps in a town that is arguably more concerned with action on the field than off. High school football is sacred in many communities across Ohio, but it is revered out of all proportion in places such as Steubenville.

Nobody messes with Big Red, a nine-time state football champion, including back-to-back titles in 2005 and 2006.

When the story of rape and Big Red was picked up by the New York Times late last year, fans cast aspersions on the alleged rape victim.

The innuendo amounted to “the girl was looking for trouble, shame on her.” Partying high school kids who know what happened, who saw the reported attack, were equally indifferent as it occurred.

They didn’t react with horror or any hint of a moral compass as a girl in a stupor was allegedly sexually assaulted for hours. Nothing screamed “No!” to them as they circulated Twitter posts and pictures.

That disturbing disconnection with writhing humanity is unfathomable. It should make you sick.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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