The Ohio judge who will be presiding over the trial of two high school football players in the Steubenville rape case made three key rulings yesterday.
Judge Thomas Lipps ruled against the defense attorneys’ request to have the trial moved elsewhere due to alleged witness “intimidation” in the small city on the West Virginia border. (The trial, in juvenile court, will not be heard by a jury, so that was not a factor.) But he postponed the trial about a month, to March 13, as those attorneys requested.
But he denied an appeal from the prosecution, and went along with a demand by the media, and decided that it would be open to the public and the press, not closed.
This is sure to be hotly debated in the divided region, and elsewhere, as the trial approaches.
The victim and the accused in the case are only 16. She has not been named by the mainstream press but the identities of the two boys emerged long ago in local, then national, media. The case has played out extensively, since the night of the attack, on social media. Protests supporting the victim, and calling for more charges against those who allegedly took part or helped out in the sexual attack, have turned out in large numbers in the town—as have those protesting the prosecution, and media, handling of the case.
Lipps’ decision Wednesday to open the rape trial to the media is considered “unusual in that traditionally juvenile proceedings have been shrouded in secrecy to protect children,” said CNN legal analyst Paul Callan.
“Historically, most U.S. states have restricted public and press access to juvenile proceedings,” Callan said. “In recent years, though, there has been a trend toward opening the secretive juvenile justice system to public scrutiny, especially where a serious felony has been charged.”
The judge, indeed, declared that the seriousness of the charges meant the public has an interest in the outcome. But he also said: “An open hearing is especially valuable where rumors, mischaracterizations and opinions unsupported by facts have reportedly been repeated in social media postings and other published outlets. An open hearing will diminish the influence of such postings and publications.”
He added that while certain allegations and facts in the case may be embarrassing to those involved, they are likely to be the subject of discussion and debate regardless—he could have added, “and already have been, widely.” Lipps said scrutiny of the trial and of how it is handled is necessary to promote “accuracy.”
From the media’s perspective:
Kevin Shook, an attorney representing multiple major print and broadcast media companies who have covered the case worldwide, argued that there is no precedent to close a case because of concerns for a victim.
Shook said that no evidence was presented by anyone to back up earlier assertions that witnesses would be afraid to testify in an open courtroom because of intimidation, and that none of their arguments rose to the level that should cause the court to trample on the rights of the press and the public to see what is happening in court.
Shook said that keeping the trial open would shed more light on the truth.
Alexander Abad-Santos at The Atlantic, who has covered the case extensively since December (as I have), observes:
For better or worse and in some form or another, the victim, the accused, and all court proceedings will be on display for public consumption. The ongoing public outcry over the case, though it has quelled while court proceedings developed these past two weeks, has centered on the idea that the details of this case has not been publicly exposed enough—and that this small football city was somehow colluding to obscure the facts and possibly hide a larger crime by what the hackers at LocalLeaks called the Steubenville “rape crew.” Considering the amount of attention paid to what the New York Times called a “decaying steel town” small Ohio town over the past few weeks, exposure is probably not going to be the problem when the TV trucks inevitably descend in March.
Incidents like the Steubenville rape are more routine than you might think: A reported rape happens every 6.2 minutes on average in the United States, Rebecca Solnit notes.