Ruling Expected Next Week on Open Trial
STEUBENVILLE-Visiting Judge Tom Lipps is expected to rule next week on several motions in the case of two Steubenville High School student-athletes who have been charged with rape.
Lipps, who was brought in from Hamilton County to hear the trial, heard arguments Friday in the juvenile courtroom of the Jefferson County Justice Center on motions to close the trial to the public and media, move it to another county and for a continuance.
The two 16-year-old defendants have been charged with rape in connection with an incident that allegedly happened Aug. 11-12. One defendant also faces a charge of illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material for allegedly having a picture of the victim in an outgoing text message on his cell phone. Attorneys for both defendants have denied the charges.
Attorney Walter Madison, who is representing one of the defendants, withdrew a motion he had made earlier asking that the trial be held behind closed doors, saying he wanted to focus on the change of venue motion. But an attorney for the victim argued the trial should be closed.
Attorney Justin Wiater said he was entering a position statement and not a formal motion on behalf of the 16-year-old victim. He said the court should order the media not to release her name. Many media organizations, including The Intelligencer, have a policy of not publishing the name of a victim of sexual abuse.
“The least amount of information released is best,” Wiater said.
Marriane Hemmeter, a special prosecutor appointed by the Ohio Attorney General’s office, said the state’s position on the issue has changed since a probable cause hearing held in October when the victim didn’t testify. Hemmeter said the teen will take the stand in the trial, and because of that, the attorney general’s office now wants the trial to be closed.
“The eye of the storm is this 16-year-old girl,” Hemmeter said.
She said weight on the girl’s shoulders is daunting, more so now with the national and even international media coverage of the case.
The attorney general’s office has released copies of the transcript from the probable cause hearing in which the girl’s name is mentioned. Hemmeter said the attorney general’s office was required to release the transcripts under Ohio’s public records laws.
Attorney Kevin Shook, who represented the Associated Press, ABC, CNN, CBS News, the New York Times and WEWS-TV of Cleveland during Friday’s hearing, told Lipps closing the case will only increase the outside perception of a cover-up in the investigation and prosecution of the case.
“People will guess what the witnesses say,” Shook said when discussing what could happen if the trial is closed. “Guessing is more dangerous than reality.”
Kristen Andrews Wilson, who represented Ogden Newspapers – including The Intelligencer – said there are rules and standards in courtrooms to make sure the truth – and not rumor – is presented.
“If the public can see the truth, it can limit speculation and rumors up to this point,” she said.
Wilson said the trial will be an educational tool for parents and children about drinking, sex and social media.
“The benefit to the public greatly outweighs any harm,” she said.
As for moving the trial to another county, Adam Nemann, one of two attorneys who are representing one of the defendants, said witnesses won’t testify because they feel threatened by online activists. He said some of the witnesses are actually hiring attorneys.
“Witnesses do not want to walk past hundreds of people, some wearing masks, for fear of retribution if they testify of behalf of the defense’s case,” he said if the trial stays in Steubenville.
Moving the case to a larger county, such as Franklin County, would ensure a larger law enforcement presence, Nemann said.
Madison said even Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla has received a death threat over the case while trying to prove his point about threats. He said the sheriff’s department is getting reports of people who feel threatened.
“All we have asked from day one is for a fair trial,” Madison said.
Brian Deckert, another special prosecutor assigned to the case, said witnesses can be subpoenaed and forced to testify under the penalty of perjury.
As for moving the trial from Steubenville, he said, “It doesn’t make sense and doesn’t cure anything.”
The trial is scheduled to start Feb. 13. Madison said he needs more time to prepare his case, citing trial strategy which he wouldn’t discuss during Friday’s public hearing. Lipps told the attorneys he is concerned about getting the case resolved in a reasonable amount of time. Madison said it is important to be properly prepared for trial because his client faces a lifelong reporting requirement if he is convicted of a sex crime.
Attorney Brian Duncan, who also represents one of the defendants, said there is new discovery of possible evidence being presented by the attorney general’s office. Lipps said there could be something new all the time if the case is continued. Hemmeter, meanwhile, said the investigation and collection of witness statements were completed months ago.
Madison also filed a motion asking that the alleged victim be called the “accuser” during the trial.
“We don’t know if she is a victim. It is just an accusation,” he said.
Hemmeter responded by saying the attorney general’s office is the accuser. She said the attorney general’s office will call the alleged victim by her name.
Madison, who was retained as a lawyer in the case, wants the court to pay for an investigator to assist him in preparing for trial. He claimed the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, the investigative arm of the attorney general’s office, pulled agents off other cases and interviewed 86 witnesses in a week using a series of prepared questions.
“They got 86 people to cooperate in a week. I couldn’t get that done in a year. I just want to kick some rocks over,” he said.
Hemmeter said Madison was retained and courts don’t have a history of paying for an investigator when a defendant pays for his or her own defense.