Issue in Trial A Serious One

Just when many Ohio Valley residents thought the path to putting months of anguish behind us was open, a major roadblock has been thrown up.

We refer, of course, to the trial of two Steubenville High School students accused of raping a Weirton girl last summer. It is to begin Wednesday – but apparently without three witnesses who may be keys to establishing the truth.

The alleged assault occurred after what some reports have termed “an alcohol-fueled party” in Jefferson County. Other young people were present and some may have witnessed the events in question.

Defense attorneys had sought testimony from three West Virginia juveniles, contending the youths could help establish their clients’ innocence. Visiting Judge Thomas Lipps, who will preside over the trial in Steubenville, had requested the three be subpoenaed – that is, compelled to testify at the trial.

Because the youths are West Virginians, the matter was dealt with by Hancock County Circuit Judge Ronald Wilson. As we have reported, Wilson refused to grant Lipps’ request.

Wilson, noting “a trial judge follows the law – he does not make it,” said he could find no statute giving him the authority to grant the subpoenas. Moreover, he said no case from anywhere in the country had been presented to him to support the argument that the youths should be compelled to testify in another state.

It would not be proper to speculate on how Lipps will handle the issue, which clearly is a very serious one. In essence, defense attorneys are being deprived of testimony they think may clear the two accused teenagers.

But the law is the law. Wilson had no choice but to follow it as he interprets its meaning. He should not be second-guessed for doing his job.

Complicated questions of privacy, jurisdiction, individual rights and the right to a fair trial – guaranteed to all Americans – are involved. Making them even more knotty are that juveniles are involved and there have been calls that witnesses to the alleged assault should be charged with crimes themselves, for having failed to report the situation to police.

Inevitably, similar situations will occur in the future. Interaction among West Virginians and Ohioans is common and, unfortunately, it sometimes involves wrongdoing. Court officials and legislators in both states should take careful note of the Steubenville situation, then, and consult about what, if anything, can be done to prevent a similar problem in the future.