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Big Ben Roethlisberger case has pricey potential

| Wednesday, March 10, 2010

MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. -- While the investigation into an alleged sexual assault involving Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger reached its sixth day, legal experts here and nationwide began focusing on how the media maelstrom might affect the probe.

A 20-year-old sorority student has accused Roethlisberger of attacking her in a corner restroom abutting the VIP room of the downtown Capital City nightclub. What's unusual about the case isn't the sex-crime investigation - Baldwin County has about 10 annually, according to state statistics - but the accused celebrity, his high-priced legal team and the phalanx of reporters and private detectives descending on this town of about 20,000.

In an age of cell phones, social media sites, 24-hour news and celebrity gossip Internet pages, the intense media scrutiny started shortly after the woman told police early Friday that Roethlisberger, 28, assaulted her.

"In 1991, before cell phones, before everyone had a computer, before everything like it is today, the only case we really had as a reference point was the William Kennedy Smith trial," said David Dreyer, the Marion County assistant prosecutor who successfully prosecuted boxer Mike Tyson of raping a beauty contestant in Indianapolis.

"We were mindful of the media atmosphere and the resources of the defendant and took steps so that all of that wouldn't interfere with the prosecution," Dreyer said.

No charges have been filed against Roethlisberger.

The Tribune-Review reported on Monday that Roethlisberger's accuser was planning to drop out of school. reported Tuesday that she is living with her parents near Atlanta.

Roethlisberger's prominent Atlanta criminal attorney, Edward T.M. Garland, insists the Steelers quarterback is innocent and predicted that the investigation led by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Milledgeville Police Department will exonerate him.

Students said that Georgia investigators and Milledgeville police shouldn't be taken lightly by out-of-town reporters.

"They're no joke. Of course, you're dealing with 'small-town police,' but they take their jobs pretty seriously," said Amanda Damerow, 21 and a Georgia College & State University senior. "And especially with the college students. They look out for us. That's a reason why we feel so safe there. ... The students know that they can count on the police to be there when we need them."

Garland did not return telephone calls yesterday. He's represented a string of sports stars, including Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and former Atlanta Thrasher Dany Heatley.

If charges are filed in this case, the prosecutor will be Frederic D. Bright, a highly respected district attorney elected in 2006 to serve Baldwin and eight other counties in the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit of central Georgia's state courts.

Bright released a statement saying that it would be premature to "make any announcement at this time."

"Fred Bright, he's a good man," criminal defense attorney Frank W. Hicks III said.

About one out of every 10 men on Georgia's death row had to deal with Bright first - and his circuit is only one of 49 statewide -- according to the state's Department of Corrections.

Dreyer, 54 -- now a judge in Indianapolis who wrote a sociology textbook chapter on crime, law and the media, titled "Mike Tyson: Boxing With the Media" -- said the Roethlisberger investigation likely will be affected by the media spotlight.

"Factually, the case against Tyson was not complicated. We had the witness information tied up early. As the case went to trial, however, a good portion of what concerned us involved managing what happens in the glare of the media," Dreyer said.

"We had something like 109 news organizations at the trial. We were concerned that people would act differently - judges, attorneys, witnesses, police. One of the things we did that worked out well was to bring the case before a confidential grand jury first."

Costs were another headache.

Financially, the trio of Indianapolis prosecutors found their lives for more than a year consumed by the litigation and appeals, including facing off against renowned lawyers such as Allan Dershowitz. The costs of jurors, overtime wages for the police guarding the hearings and other charges rose about $150,000 in 1991, expenses the taxpayers had to absorb.

Baldwin County and its 46,000 residents will bear any potential expenses tied to a lengthy trial.

The annual budget for Baldwin County's courts is about $2.2 million, not including judges' salaries paid by the state. Georgia has faced multibillion-dollar budget shortfalls. In 2009, lawmakers pruned about 15 percent from the court budget, and counties had to shave costs.

"If there's a finding by a grand jury, if anyone is indicted, then we will fund it like we would any other trial," said Baldwin County manager Joan Minton, 61. "But we're not at that point."

Additional Information:

By the numbers

Sex-crimes prisoners in Georgia: 1,897

Convicted sex offenders living in Baldwin County: 76

Number incarcerated in Baldwin County: 8

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