Guilty verdicts are only a start

March 18, 2013

Nicole Colson reports on the trial of two Steubenville, Ohio, football players on charges of rape--and why their convictions can't be the end of the story.

Trigger warning

TWO STEUBENVILLE, Ohio, teens--Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond--have been found guilty of the rape of a 16-year-old girl in a case that has become emblematic of the issue of sexual assault in America. Mays was also convicted of distributing a nude image of a minor.

Mays, age 17, was sentenced to serve at least two years in the state juvenile system, while Richmond, age 16, was sentenced to serve at least one year. Both could remain in state custody until the age of 21 at the discretion of the Department of Youth Services, and both will be required to register as juvenile sex offenders.

The two teens, prominent high school football players in the small city, raped a 16-year-old last August. During six hours of testimony, the young woman, identified as "Jane Doe" to protect her identity, described blacking out after having been drinking. The drinks, she said, made her feel odd and act differently than other times she drank. Her last memory before blacking out, she told the court, was vomiting on herself.

People gathered in Steubenville, Ohio, to demand justice for Jane Doe
People gathered in Steubenville, Ohio, to demand justice for Jane Doe

She only learned what had happened to her the next day, when she awoke, naked and "embarrassed, scared, not sure what to think," in the basement of a friend's home surrounded by Mays, Richmond and another boy. She was unaware of where she was and unable to find her underwear and phone.

After discovering what had happened, chiefly from pictures on the Internet of her after she passed out, she texted one of Mays' friends to ask, "Who was there who did that to me? You couldn't have told them to stop or anything?" Two days later, she went to the hospital, where a doctor told her that a rape kit wouldn't show evidence of assault because of the time that had passed.

The media have focused on the impact of social media on the case. A photo posted on the Internet showed the young woman limp, being carried by her hands and feet by two football players that night. This gave weight to the prosecutor's charges that a rape had occurred, as did the many text messages and a video in which Steubenville athletes seemed to revel in the rape. One former baseball player said she was "so raped...Her puss is about as dry as the sun right now."

In one text presented at trial, Mays described sexually assaulting the young woman with his hands. In another text, he described her as "like a dead body." In another text, Mays told the young woman he had taken a picture of her that was circulating among students. In it, she was lying naked in the basement, with what he told her was his semen on her body. He claimed during the trial that this was the result of a consensual sex act.

Mays also told a friend in whose basement one of the alleged attacks happened: "Just say she came to your house and passed out."

WHILE THE social media factor and the arrogance and reckless stupidity of the Steubenville jocks are noteworthy, the real story in Steubenville is how these young men could feel entitled to rape a young woman--and count on the support of many authority figures and adults in their community, not to mention the media at large.

Indeed, CNN's coverage of the guilty verdict was focused on speculating about the emotional trauma of the defendants when they were sentenced. According to

CNN's Candy Crowley began her breaking news report by showing [Judge Thomas] Lipps handing down the sentence and telling CNN reporter Poppy Harlow that she "cannot imagine" how emotional the sentencing must have been.

Harlow explained that it had been "incredibly difficult" to watch "as these two young men--who had such promising futures, star football players, very good students--literally watched as they believed their life fell apart."

"One of the young men, Ma'lik Richmond, as that sentence came down, he collapsed," the CNN reporter recalled, adding that the convicted rapist told his attorney that "my life is over, no one is going to want me now."...

Candy then asked CNN legal contributor Paul Callan what the verdict meant for "a 16 year old, sobbing in court, regardless of what big football players they are, they still sound like 16 year olds."

Neither Crowley nor Harlow talked about how "difficult" it is to view the video of the Steubenville students laughing about the rape of a young woman or the "lasting effect" on the victim and of becoming a pariah in your community for daring to seek justice.

"The thing I found most disturbing about this is that there were other people around when this was going on," William McCafferty, the Steubenville police chief, told the New York Times in December. "Nobody had the morals to say, 'Hey, stop it, that isn't right.'"

"If you could charge people for not being decent human beings, a lot of people could have been charged that night," he added.

But it wasn't only the Steubenville players and their friends who are guilty, but the culture of a small city that treats young athletes like celebrities and has given them a free pass.

STEUBENVILLE, AN industrial town where unemployment is high, views its football team as a source of local pride. As left-wing sportswriter Dave Zirin put it, "Because high school football is at the center of the social, psychological and even economic life of Steubenville, youth are treated like demigods, with the adults acting like sentries guarding the sacred program."

Indeed, in one series of texts Mays sent to a friend, he said he had been worried about how Steubenville football Coach Reno Saccoccia would take the news--but Saccoccia seemed to have put the young man's mind at ease. The coach, Mays wrote in one text to a friend, "took care of it." In another, Mays wrote, "Like, he was joking about it so I'm not worried."

Saccoccia remains the coach of the Steubenville football team. At least three other players who may have been involved in the assault, whether as participants or witnesses, remain uncharged with any crime.

And while Mays and Richmond have now been found guilty, the victim in the case--who lives across the Ohio River from Steubenville in Weirton, W.Va.--has been subjected to a particular kind of hell in the run-up to the trial.

For weeks, parents of the players, along with many members of the community, rallied to their defense. For example, Richmond's attorney Walter Madison claimed the victim's initial silence in the media should be seen as evidence against her. "The person who is the accuser here is silent, just as she was that night, and that's because there was consent," Madison said, according the Atlantic Wire.

Of course, the victim wasn't silent. She endured six hours of testimony and a cross-examination during which Madison tried to attack her credibility and say she consented to the assault--that she was, in fact, asking for it.

In court, the defense case rested on the idea that the young victim had been drunk, but had consented to sex. Never mind that Ohio's legal standards of rape include when a victim "compelled through force, threat or controlled substance"--something seemingly obvious in this case, given the pictures of the victim being carried around while blacked out.

Nevertheless, Madison told the media before the trial, "There's an abundance of evidence here that she was making decisions, cognitive choices. She didn't affirmatively say no."

It's hard, however, to say "no" when you're passed out. That "silence" shouldn't be an invitation to be sexually assaulted.

Of course, defense attorneys in a rape case consider it their job in providing an aggressive defense to call the victim--essentially--a liar and a drunken slut. But that attitude was reflected in much of the Steubenville community, which rallied behind the young men.

At one point, Reno Saccoccia, the coach, threatened a woman reporter who asked him why he didn't discipline the players involved. According to the New York Times, Saccoccia said, "You made me mad now," while swearing as walked to his car. "Nearly nose to nose with a reporter," the Times reported, "he growled: 'You're going to get yours. And if you don't get yours, somebody close to you will.'"

As author Michael Kimmel wrote at

As I found in my interviews with more than 400 young men for my book Guyland, in the aftermath of these sorts of events--when high-status high school athletes commit felonies, especially gang rape--they are surrounded and protected by their fathers, their school administrations and their communities. These out-of-control, rapacious thugs are our school's heroes...The players themselves hold to a code of silence, the omerta of sexual assault: No one ever rats out a fellow bro. The parents, the school and the community circle wagons in a culture of protection around the boys.

It's often the girl herself, and her parents, who are vilified and receive death threats for daring to expose the crime in the first place.

Indeed, the victim in the Steubenville case received so many death threats that she and her family were put under police protection in the weeks before the trial. After the guilty verdict, a flood of hateful messages and threats were directed at the victim through Twitter (including several using her allegedly real first name).

Very few people questioned why the burden should be on an intoxicated woman to say "no" to sexual activity--or what it says about a community when young men can film themselves abusing a peer, or get reassurance from their coach about their actions.

As prosecutor Marianne Hemmeter said:

This case isn't about a YouTube video. This case isn't about social media. This case isn't about Big Red football. This case is about a 16-year-old girl who was taken advantage of, toyed with, and humiliated, and it's time to the people who did that to her are held responsible.

HEMMETER IS right. And it's important that Mays and Richmond have been found guilty, especially given the atmosphere surrounding the trial. This a message about the ability of a victim of rape to receive some measure of justice--something that is all too rare--if she comes forward.

But we also need to say that these two teenagers became convinced of their right to use a young woman's body--to violate her for their own amusement and see her as something less than a human being. That sense of entitlement doesn't spring into their heads from nowhere. It was, instead, pounded into them over and over by a sexist media and society--and in Steubenville, apparently, by adults around them who saw their position as local football heroes as a pass for the most reprehensible behavior.

Real change--either in Mays' and Richmond's own minds about their actions, or in society at large--can't happen while there's a slew of adults ready to defend them and enable their behavior. It won't happen in the world at large as long as we allow people to use excuses like "she was a slut," "she was asking for it," and "she didn't say 'no.'"

Where is the punishment, or even acknowledgment of wrongdoing, by the adults who enabled these two teenage boys? The young woman who was raped has been trashed by their families, the community and the media for weeks. Real justice for her--as for other victims of sexual assault--must entail more than just locking up these two young men for a while.

The two guilty verdicts are a start, but we also have to build a society that tells young men that they aren't entitled to have access to women's sexuality. We have to address what real consent means. And we especially have to challenge the institutions--the sports teams and coaches, the frat houses and college administrations, the military officials--that perpetuate a sexist culture in which rape is allowed to happen.

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