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Rape trial of football heroes brings scrutiny on Ohio town

Harding Stadium, home of the Steubenville High Big Red football team sits in the middle of Steubenville, Ohio, January 8, 2013. REUTERS/Jaso
Harding Stadium, home of the Steubenville High Big Red football team sits in the middle of Steubenville, Ohio, January 8, 2013. REUTERS/Jaso

By Drew Singer

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio (Reuters) - Two high school football players accused of raping a girl will face trial in Steubenville, Ohio, on Wednesday in a case that has become a national example of social media's powerful influence in modern society.

Quarterback Trent Mays and wide receiver Ma'Lik Richmond, both 16, are charged with raping their classmate, whose name has been withheld by Reuters, at a teammate's house after a night of drinking on August 11.

Prosecutors say Richmond and Mays sexually assaulted their classmate as she lay naked on the basement floor, too drunk to move or speak. The girl told police she did not remember what happened, but reported the incident the next day once she heard about it from her friends.

The case might have never been known outside the local area, like thousands of sexual assault cases in the United States each year. But after the party, a photograph began circulating on Twitter of two people carrying a passed-out girl by her arms and legs. Along with the photo, graphic banter on social media among people who had attended the party suggested that a rape had occurred and that more than two players were involved.

Local prosecutors charged the two players on August 22.

The case went viral on social media, and the town was accused of wrapping a cone of silence around the team to shield other players from prosecution.

The global computer hacking network Anonymous got involved. It obtained and publicized a video that it said showed several Steubenville players joking about a rape, and organized protests on the steps of the county courthouse in Steubenville which drew people from out of state.

A women's rights group presented a petition to Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine demanding prosecution of more players.

The pressure from outside Steubenville shows how social media are transforming society, said Sree Sreenivasan, Columbia University's chief digital officer, who teaches social media.

"Things which used to happen in private settings now happen publicly and have much longer legs than they've had in the past," he said. "In this case, social media has been integral to both the legal case and how the story has affected the community, for better and for worse."

The criticism has stunned this economically depressed steel town of 19,000 which reveres its perennial powerhouse "Big Red" football team and legendary coach Reno Saccoccia.

Saccoccia, 63, has coached at Steubenville for 35 years, winning three state titles through a regime of hard work and tough discipline. He was inducted into the Upper Ohio Valley Hall of Fame in 2007, and the school's stadium bears his name.

Even though Mays and Richmond did not play last year, the team posted a record of nine wins and three losses.

"In a depressed area, the public seems to rally around something that's been good and successful, something that puts the city out in a positive way," said Jerry Barilla, who owns a furniture store in Steubenville, where he was born and raised.

With football so ingrained in the town, a trial of its players proved difficult. The county prosecutor and the juvenile judge both removed themselves from the case because they had ties to the team. A judge from a neighboring county was brought in and Attorney General DeWine's office took over the probe.

In October, the new prosecutors sent letters to three more football players - Evan Westlake, Anthony Craig and Mark Cole - promising they would not be charged for their actions on the night of the rape, according to copies of the letter given to Reuters by people directly involved. Days later, they testified at a preliminary hearing against their teammates.

Defense lawyers call the exchange an immunity deal, but prosecutors deny making any commitments.

The three were the only people who attended the party to come forward, and their accounts gave prosecutors enough evidence to proceed to trial. Prosecutors say they do not have enough evidence to charge other players.

Mays and Richmond will be tried as juveniles. The proceedings could last through Friday.

Attorneys for the players say that there is more to the story than social media have said and that there has been a rush to judgment that the two are guilty.

The sex with the girl was "consensual," according to a court filing provided to Reuters outlining the case defense lawyers plan to pursue in the trial. The girl also told friends before the incident that she wanted to have sex with players, the filing says.

Prosecutors declined to comment until the trial begins.

Richmond's grandmother, Linda Wheat, said she received a telephone threat as a result of the attention focused on the case.

"I thought these guys were innocent until proven guilty, but they're not," she told Reuters. "These people online have made them guilty. Why have they ruined them?"

(Reporting by Drew Singer; Additional reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Greg McCune and Jim Marshall)