Potential witnesses for two high-school football players facing rape accusations in eastern Ohio have been threatened and pressured not to testify, and some are reluctant to come forward, attorneys for the players said Monday as they consider whether to ask the trial be moved and closed to the public.
At issue is publicity surrounding the case and the concerns some witnesses have that their names and addresses may be published through social media and on the Internet.
The current juvenile court judge overseeing the case scheduled next month in Steubenville has previously declined a request to close the proceedings.
"They are reluctant to sacrifice their college career, their reputation, or their otherwise good standing in whatever community they may be found for fear of being vilified, and certain personal information finding its way on the Internet," said Walter Madison, an attorney for 16-year-old defendant Ma'Lik Richmond.
Social media and the Internet are playing a crucial role in the case. Hackers last week released a video purportedly showing a Steubenville student joking about the alleged attack and an attorney for the girl's family has said online commentary about the case had made the situation harder. Another Steubenville student dropped a suit last month over comments on a blog that suggested he might have been involved.
'They are reluctant to sacrifice their college career, their reputation, or their otherwise good standing in whatever community they may be found for fear of being vilified.'—Walter Madison, attorney for defendant Ma'Lik Richmond
Steubenville City Schools were also placed under lockdown for about 90 minutes on Tuesday morning because of what police called a "shooting threat made on social media," local station WTOV9 reported. Police said later the threat was found to be "non-viable."
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, whose office is overseeing the case's prosecution, said the decision on whether to relocate the trial will be up to the judge. He declined to comment on the attorneys' concerns.
"There is obviously a lot going on in the social media and there's a lot going on in the mainstream media, but ultimately this case will be decided by a juvenile judge who will listen to the evidence, and the case will be presented no differently than it would in any other case," DeWine said.
Lawyer wants 'proper day in court'
Brian Duncan, an attorney for the other 16-year-old defendant, Trent Mays, also said Monday he's considering a similar request.
"We just want to make sure our client and the other defendant have their proper day in court," Duncan said.
The two boys are set for trial next month in juvenile court in Steubenville, a city of about 18,000, on charges that they raped a 16-year-old girl in August. Their attorneys have denied the charges in court.
Public interest in the case increased with the online circulation of the video, more than 12 minutes long, that shows one young man joking about the accuser following the alleged attack. The hackers who released the video allege more people were involved and should be held accountable.
On Monday, an attorney said the young man regretted the comments, made when he was intoxicated.
The attorney said in a statement that the man, a 2012 graduate of Steubenville High School and an Ohio State University academic scholarship student this past fall, was ashamed and embarrassed about his comments and the effect his behaviour has had, especially on his family.
The man is not a suspect in the investigation and was not present at the alleged attack, said attorney Dennis McNamara of Columbus. He said the man he referred to as "Michael" left a party around midnight where he was told the alleged victim had been drinking and went to a friend's house where the video was recorded about 2 a.m. on Aug. 12.
'Ashamed and embarrassed'
"There is no excuse or justification for the comments and jokes Michael made on the video," the statement said.
"With sober reflection, he is ashamed and embarrassed," the statement said. "He sincerely regrets his behaviour and the effect it has had on all parties involved, especially his family. He was not raised to act in this manner."
The statement said the young man played sports but not football at Steubenville.
McNamara said the video was posted on YouTube in August, taken down, then reposted by a hackers' group last week.
Over the weekend, city authorities launched a website to combat misperceptions about the case, including the allegation that the football team has an unusual sway over the city.
The site, sponsored by Steubenville city and police officials, explains that only a handful of police officers attended local schools and that the city manager herself is not even from Ohio. Its launch followed the hiring of a consultant who's helping the city handle a barrage of media attention sparked by the case.
As the investigation continues, it has spurred heated commentary online. Some support the defendants and question the character of the teenage girl, while others allege a coverup or contend more people should be charged.
The latter group includes hacker-activists who point to comments they say were posted around the time of the alleged attack on social media by people who are not charged.