US & Canada

Ohio tension rises over Steubenville rape case

View of Steubenville, Ohio
Steubenville is former steel town where the high school footballers are star names

Students in an Ohio city where two high-school footballers are accused of rape are to have unarmed guards posted at their schools.

The move comes amid tension in Steubenville, Ohio, ahead of a trial.

A student seen online joking about the alleged rape of a teenage girl after an alcohol-soaked party regrets his comments, his lawyer has said.

Potential witnesses have also come under pressure not to testify in February's trial, lawyers say.

Trenton Mays and Ma'lik Richmond, both 16, will face charges at a juvenile court in February. Their lawyers say they are innocent.

The case has gripped the small city of Steubenville, a former steel town of some 18,000 people, with social media key to the spread of information.

Ohio State University student Michael Nodianos is not a suspect in the case, but a video of him making disparaging comments about the alleged victim was posted on YouTube in August, taken down, and re-posted by hackers last week, his lawyer said.

Speaking on Monday, Dennis McNamara said his client had "made several very callous comments and is ashamed and embarrassed" by them.

"He regrets those comments. He was not raised in that manner. I don't believe it was a crime to make the video, but it was stupid," Mr McNamara said, the Steubenville Herald-Star reported.

In the 12-minute video, Mr Nodianos can be heard joking about the alleged rape, and at one point refers to the girl as looking "dead".

He is reported to have left the university after receiving threats, and groups linked to hacking collective Anonymous have pledged to publish more videos.

Social media 'evidence'?

Mr Nodianos' video comments reportedly refer to the alleged rape of a 16-year-old girl on the night of 11 August 2012.

She is said to have been attacked during a night of parties attended by members of the Steubenville High football team - which has an ardent following in the local area.

People protest outside the courthouse in Steubenville, Ohio 5 January 2013
The case has sparked anger and outrage in the town and online

The two suspects, both star players on the team, were arrested on 22 August and then charged with rape and kidnapping, although the abduction charges were later dropped.

They are currently under house arrest and their families say the boys are innocent.

Hours after the incident took place, messages, videos, and photographs - including images of the alleged victim that have been described as compromising and explicit - were posted online and shared.

The words "rape" and "drunk girl" were used in many of the posts. It has been suggested that she may have been urinated on.

Police have said the girl had so much to drink that she is not able to remember much of what happened, and does not recall events that took place after midnight.

But a medical examination of the victim more than one day after the night of the parties did not yield evidence, such as semen, that would have supported allegations of rape, police said.

Investigators have also reportedly had difficulty retrieving deleted posts and photographs from phones and iPads seized by the authorities.

They found two pictures of the 16-year-old, naked, but they do not show anyone involved in a sexual act with the girl, the New York Times reported.

The case is raising tensions in the small Ohio city: on Tuesday guards were posted to school buildings after a threat was received that prompted a brief shutdown of the Steubenville public school network.

Lawyers for potential witnesses also said this week that their clients were facing pressure not to testify at the trial, currently set for February.

'Threats'

On Monday, Mr Nodianos' lawyer emphasised that his client was not present when the alleged rape took place.

On the night of 11 August, Mr Nodianos was at a party in Steubenville that the alleged victim also attended, the lawyer said.

Mr Nodianos saw the 16-year-old girl leaving the party with two boys in the early hours of 12 August, but was not present when the attack allegedly occurred.

Mr McNamara also suggested the young man, who was in his first year at Ohio State University, had suspended his studies as a result of threats stemming from the video, according to reports.

Meanwhile, the alleged victim's mother said in interviews in December that her family had also received threats and extra police were patrolling their neighbourhood.

A crime blogger who has posted extensively on the case has been sued by a member of the Steubenville High football team and his family for defamation.

The blogger has also written about football culture in the town, and has blamed it for elevating the status of the high-school athletes and allowing exceptions for them.

The trial is due to begin on 13 February.

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