The sexual assault case involving football players at Steubenville High School concluded Sunday, with a guilty verdict being handed down in juvenile court by Judge Thomas Lipps. The two defendants, Trent Mays, 17, and Ma’lik Richmond, 16, will each be detained in juvenile jail for at least one year and could be held until they are 21. The case is a tragedy for the victim as well as the entire community. Looking back now, we see the power of social media as well as a classic case of reputation damage control required of CNN after their coverage immediately after the verdict.
Living in Ohio, and having a friend from Steubenville High, I’ve been casually following the case since last summer. If you are unfamiliar with the litigation, I would advise you to read through the excellent New York Times piece that covers the whole ordeal.
In a quick summary, the Steubenville football team had their last scrimmage of the summer on August 11 of last year. Afterwards they went out to several parties at various homes. A 16-year old girl from a neighboring West Virginia private school attended one of the parties with a friend of hers. Throughout the night, over three different party locations, the girl became extremely intoxicated and was basically non-responsive. At some point, she was stripped and had humiliating acts performed on her. The next day, the girl had no recollection of what happened but numerous students were discussing the evening’s events on Twitter. Someone even posted a photo of the victim on Instagram, where she is topless, appears to be passed out, and is being carried around.
Many of these social media details would have gone unnoticed by the public if it weren’t for a 43-year old woman who has lived in Steubenville for five years. On August 22, Alexandra Goddard discovered that two Steubenville students had been arrested and accused of rape. Knowing how things work in the small town, Goddard was nervous that the town would do everything in their power to provide preferential treatment to the football players. She jumped online and spent hours trying to gather information about the situation. Interestingly enough, Goddard makes a living by performing social media analysis for parents to discover what their children are up to online, so she used her expertise to quickly do some research on various social media platforms.
She uncovered countless Twitter conversations between students at the party that involved the word “rape.” Goddard also uncovered other accusations from the evening and placed them on her site. The resulting article Ms. Goddard published March 18 is a riveting but also disturbing piece as to the lengths people would go to hide the truth.
After Ms. Goddard helped cast a spotlight on the rape case, the story continued to pick up steam. In October a hacktivist outfit by the name of KnighSec posted a 12 minute video where a Steubenville baseball player spoke at length of how the victim was raped.
As for the victim in the case, she did testify but only remembers beginning to drink in the evening and has no other recollections of the night of August 12. Unfortunately, it seems few people came to her defense in court out of fear of being ostracized in the small town. The vast majority of the evidence in the case came directly from social media, which has gotten more than a few people upset.
“Social media is turning our justice system on its head,” observed Greene County Ohio Common Pleas Judge Stephen Wolaver. “It’s not the criminal justice system we have pursued throughout the course of history — unless you go back to the Salem Witch Trials.”
When the verdict was reached early afternoon on Sunday, March 17, CNN’s desk anchor, Candy Crowley, spoke of the rape taking place after a “heavy night of partying.” She then tossed it to the on-scene reporter, Poppy Harlow, who as you can see in the below video, described the defendants as “star football players” who had “promising futures.” She then proceeded to show a clip of the guilty young men tearfully begging for forgiveness, and continued to offer her sympathy to them for over four minutes without even mentioning the victim or that these men committed a serious crime.
Needless to say, CNN’s coverage didn’t exactly sit well with the online crowd. Within hours, the Change.org put together a petition asking for CNN to apologize for the way the coverage was handled just after the verdict was issued. As of this morning, the petition has received over 240,000 signatures. However, CNN is standing strong, and has yet to address the firestorm.
After the verdict and sentencing on Sunday, two girls were arrested Monday in Steubenville for making threats to the victim. A 16-year old was charged with threatening the victim’s life over Twitter, while a 15-year old girl was charged with threatening bodily harm via Facebook.
At the end of the day, this case has been a tragedy for everyone involved, but should cement the notion that social media is now engrained in everyone’s lives, whether good or bad, and if it can be used deliver justice against a criminal, I can’t see how that is a bad thing.