Judge keeps rape trial in Steubenville, open to public

Chris Togneri
| Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, 11:00 p.m.

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — A judge presiding over a high-profile juvenile rape case ruled on Wednesday to keep the trial in Steubenville and in open court, though he agreed to delay it one month to March 13.

The decision drew mixed reaction, just as the case itself has polarized people here and in nearby towns along the Ohio River.

Steubenville High School football players Ma'lik Richmond and Trenton Mays, both 16, are charged with raping a semiconscious 16-year-old girl at a party in August. Their lawyers argued to move the trial, saying extensive publicity, threatened violence and recent public demonstrations could intimidate witnesses.

Visiting Judge Thomas Lipps said airing the case would be in the public's interest. He said trials generally move when the court cannot find impartial jurors, but because the case is in juvenile court, he will try the boys and not a jury.

The defendants, most witnesses and the investigators live in Jefferson County, where prosecutors say the crime occurred, he said.

“The local community is interested in this case. (It) should be tried in Jefferson County,” Lipps wrote in his decision.

The case grabbed national headlines in the fall when bloggers and activists accused city and police officials of a cover-up.

The “hacktivist” group Anonymous published leaked and hacked evidence on the case, including a photo of the suspects carrying the girl by her ankles and wrists and a 12-minute video of a teen crudely joking about the attackers raping her and urinating on her.

“We're good people. To condemn an entire city for the actions of two football players is totally dumbfounding to me,” businessman Jerry Barilla said before the judge's ruling.

“It's appalling to see these accusations thrown at an entire city, when we've worked so hard to be reputable and honest. All that goodness has just been washed away with what's happening,” said Barilla, who is president of Historic Fort Steuben.

Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla applauded the judge's decision.

“The people have the right to know what the heck is going on in that courtroom, especially in this case here with the continued accusations of a cover-up,” Abdalla said. “If he'd closed the trial, it'd be, ‘Oh, here we go again.' Ninety-nine percent of the stuff out there is totally false. I'm tickled to death that the judge ruled it will be open.”

Steubenville police Chief William McCafferty disagreed, saying the case should be closed to protect the girl, who lives across the river in Weirton, W.Va.

“This is a very serious case involving juveniles,” McCafferty said. “I don't think any of the media coverage so far has done anything to protect the victim. I understand people want to see justice done, but I don't believe everyone should have a front-row seat to every criminal case in the country, especially when you're talking about a rape involving a juvenile.”

Prosecutors say the suspects attacked the girl on the night of Aug. 11 at parties attended by many drunken teens, including teammates on the wildly popular Big Red high school football team.

When a judge and prosecuting attorney withdrew from the case because of ties to the football program, bloggers and others stepped up their accusations of a cover-up. Some critics contend coach Reno Saccoccia holds the ability to influence the town's public officials.

Saccoccia could not be reached.

McCafferty said police give football players no special treatment. He said he hasn't met the coach and he does not follow or enjoy high school football.

“Does anyone really think that I, or any of my officers, would risk their careers for a high school football team?” he said. “It's ridiculous.”

The Ohio Attorney General's Office took over the investigation, McCafferty said.

“People are going to believe what they want to believe,” Abdalla said. “If God from heaven came down and said there was no cover-up, they'd say, ‘Oh yes, there was.' ”

The video fueled emotions. In it, a former Steubenville High School student, whom authorities identified as Michael Nodianos, 18, joked about the rape as others laughed off-camera.

“That's how you know she's dead, because someone (urinated) on her,” Nodianos, a former high school baseball player, said in the video.

Neither Nodianos nor his attorney, Dennis McNamara, could be reached. McNamara has said the teen was drunk when the video was taped and that he did not witness a rape.

The video and other leaked evidence prompted hundreds of people to protest in Steubenville on Jan. 5. Many urged police to arrest Nodianos. Abdalla and McCafferty described the video as “disgusting” but said it was not criminal.

Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com.

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