Circle Of Accountability Widens In Steubenville Rape Case

Mar 20, 2013
Originally published on March 20, 2013 11:31 am

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Guilty verdicts in the Steubenville rape trial appear to be just the start. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine will ask a grand jury to consider charges against others who may share some responsibility for what happened at those now-notorious parties back in August.

Text messages, videos, testimony could cast a wide net: partygoers, parents, school officials and coaches - all in a town where just about everybody knows everybody else and where many people can't believe just how quickly the social fabric's come unraveled.

So how wide is wide enough? Where do you draw that line between moral and criminal responsibility? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, Syria may have crossed one of President Obama's red lines this week. Iran seems on track to cross another later this year. The risks and rewards of lines in the sand.

But first, accountability in Steubenville. Rachel Dissell is a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She's been covering the Steubenville rape trial and joins us now by phone from her office in Cleveland. Good to have you with us today.

RACHEL DISSELL: Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: And there are already new charges against two teenage girls who allegedly threatened the victim on Twitter and Facebook. The scope here just seems to keep widening.

DISSELL: Yeah, it seems like some of the young folks in this case haven't quite learned the lesson on how not to use social media. And right after the verdicts and the sentence came, a 15 and a 16-year-old girl had made some threats on social media against the victim. One threat was more just, you know, I'd like to hurt you, and the other threat was more specific, you know, the youth said that they would kill the victim.

And the sheriff's office quickly swooped in and arrested them both, and they're in juvenile detention there in Jefferson County now.

CONAN: And this investigation is likely to tear the town open, isn't it?

DISSELL: Well, I think that there's a couple schools of thinking on it. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said that though he knows this has been arduous and difficult for the community, that he feels like in the long run he needs to have a grand jury examine all of the other things that have come out that he hasn't waged charges on. That way people feel there's been a thorough investigation into everything, you know, kind of the no stone left unturned approach, and let people locally on the grand jury decide whether they think that other people need to be held accountable.

On the other hand, this has gone on for more than six months, and yesterday the attorney for the 16-year-old victim in the case said that she and her family really just wish that this would kind of be over with. They thought with the trial ending that this would allow them to kind of move forward a little bit and allow her to begin to rebuild her life and shift focus away from her. But with the grand jury not convening probably until about April 15, it looks like this may go on for some time now.

CONAN: And again, with those two teenage girls issuing threats after the verdict, clearly she's not going to be able to settle down, not easily.

DISSELL: I agree, and I think too that in Ohio here the conversation is beginning to shift, at least a little bit, today. The attorney general and some lawmakers did have a press conference this morning in which they're starting a conversation about having some expanded rape crisis services around the state and included in that some prevention services.

One of the things that people have been really talking about here in Ohio and in Steubenville is that the youths involved in this case, they really didn't have any education in school on some of these issues in terms of consent and what really amounts to rape.

And it was really eye-opening for many of us covering the trial to hear teen after teen get on the witness stand and say that they really didn't understand that what happened was rape, and also not have very much of an understanding of the idea that if someone's that inebriated that they can't consent to some kind of sexual activity.

So that's where the conversation has also shifted to, and today the attorney general talked about putting some more rape crisis services. You know, the majority of Ohio counties don't have any, and included with that, expanding educational services.

CONAN: And as we consider this grand jury, do we know specifically who they're going to be looking at?

DISSELL: Yeah, the grand jury has wide latitude, wide powers. They can subpoena witnesses. They can subpoena documents. But I think they'll kind of be going on a framework of what Ohio state investigators have already looked at. Those investigators interviewed many, many, many witnesses and folks involved in this case in an ancillary way.

And in fact about 16 people refused to talk to them. The grand jury could subpoena those folks. It seems like what they're mostly focusing on are things that happened in the aftermath of the attack, including maybe people who knew about it and didn't report it to police. In that case, that can expand to teachers and coaches who had heard about. They are bound by law, by a different Ohio law, to report any kind of child abuse.

In addition to that, they could look at people who maybe tampered with evidence or obstructed justice during the investigation. There's been some talk at looking at the parents whose houses some of these parties were hosted at. The grand jury could look at that. Those would mostly be misdemeanor charges for allowing youth to be drinking alcohol in their house, which is illegal.

Some of the parents, however, were not home during the time that the parties were happening. So it's unclear, you know, whether they could be charged or not.

CONAN: You mentioned coaches. A lot of attention has been focused on Reno Saccoccia, the coach of the Big Red football team, the major sports franchise there in town, the high school football team. Have we heard anything from him?

DISSELL: Sure, we thought that we would see Coach Reno during the trial because he was on the witness list, and then we didn't end up seeing him. I think a lot of people really want to hear from him. He's an icon in Steubenville. The football field there is named after him, and many people look up to him, and it was very hard, I think a lot of people's reaction was they were pretty upset when they heard during the trial that a lot of the football players were sending text messages back and forth, saying that Coach Reno would take care of it in terms of when they - when he heard that the rape was reported.

We don't know whether that's true or not, but it is pretty clear from the text messages that he had knowledge of what was being reported early on. And I know when I interviewed him way back in the end of August, he claimed to have no knowledge of it, and in fact that he hadn't seen anything on the Internet, and he didn't know what the boys were really being accused of.

CONAN: As we've heard, as you mentioned, there are some who either didn't understand this was a crime or still don't believe it was a crime. Is there a sense at all that this is widening into a witch hunt?

DISSELL: You know, I don't know about that. I think that there are some people that, you know, no matter what's done, they'll feel like some people kind of escaped scrutiny. And there's other people who feel like maybe more damage will be done and it's time to have conversations, you know, more towards fixing the problem rather than continuing to, you know, examine who is at fault.

So I think there's a diversity of opinions on that, and I think that some of the folks who need to be involved, like the school district, are starting to have the right conversations about, you know, moving forward, how not to have the same situation replay.

CONAN: Well, stay with us, if you will. We want to have another voice join the conversation; that's Tom Hodson, a former criminal defense attorney and trial judge, who also served as a visiting judge with the Ohio Supreme Court. He's a journalist also and currently directs the WOUB Center for Public Media at Ohio University. He's with us by phone from his office in Athens. Nice to have you with us today.

TOM HODSON: Thank you very much, I appreciate it.

CONAN: Under Ohio law, who's required legally to report a crime if they know that a felony is being committed?

HODSON: Well, it's unclear in one respect and very clear in another. If you know that there is child abuse going on, and you're anyplace involved in a school system, you have a duty to report. That would include coaches, principals, teachers, anybody associated with the school system. You have an absolute obligation to report abuse.

Now, there is a statute in Ohio that is rarely used, and it's failure to report a crime and it says essentially that no person who knows that a felony is being committed, and they have an obligation, or it's a criminal act for them to knowingly not report that to the police. Now, that statute's rarely used because it has some difficulties in proof.

First, you have to have somebody actually observe something and not just be told or get it through hearsay. What they observe, they have to know that it's not just a crime but it's a felony. And then secondly they have to then knowingly and purposely not tell that to the police. So that one is rarely used.

The failure to report child abuse is often used, and there's also other things like obstruction of justice, and as Rachel was pointing out tampering with evidence and so forth.

CONAN: Is what you're talking about, teachers and coaches, mandated reporters is what they're called in other states?

HODSON: Yes, they must report. And Ohio, the law is pretty broad, but I'm just limiting my conversation to the schools. Almost anybody involved in a school system that knows of child abuse is under an obligation to report it.

CONAN: Is there, in the case of the parents at whose these homes - whose homes these parties were staged, what's their moral and legal obligation?

HODSON: Well, you hit the nail right on the head. Is there a moral obligation, or is there a legal obligation? In Ohio, parents have to knowingly have supplied liquor to somebody in a home to be in violation. Or they have to know that an underage person is consuming liquor in their home. Now, many citizen groups in Ohio are objecting to that law because it says they have to know.

Some places it's that people are just negligent about having these parties in their homes. So the knowingly aspect of this makes it difficult, unless parents are actually supplying alcohol or having the alcohol supplied under their knowledge - it makes it difficult for them to be held criminally liable.

Now, they may be held certainly morally liable if they think that something's going on and they don't object or try to keep it from happening, but the other aspect of this is that they could perhaps be civilly liable, not under the criminal law, but they could perhaps civilly be sued for negligently letting their child be in a home without their supervision and having a party like this.

CONAN: But it's not know or should have known?

HODSON: That's correct.

CONAN: OK, we're going to ask both of you to stay with us for a couple more minutes, and we want to get some callers in on the conversation. Where do we draw that line in this - given this Steubenville rape case between, well, where's the line between legal and moral responsibility? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'd especially like to hear from those of you in Ohio. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Two boys have been convicted of rape in Steubenville, Ohio. Two girls have now been charged with menacing for allegedly threatening the victim on Twitter and Facebook. Investigators and cybercrime specialists have reviewed and analyzed nearly 400,000 text messages related to the case plus hundreds of thousands of photos, nearly 1,000 video clips and more.

And what they've learned, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has suggested, may lead to further arrests. So tell us, what do you think? How wide a net is wide enough? And where is the line between moral responsibility and criminal? 800-989-8255 is our phone number, email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Rachel Dissell, a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and former criminal defense attorney and trial judge Tom Hodson are our guests. And Rachel Dissell, I wanted to get back to you. All of these tweets and videos and emails that have been - well, they're all going to become public. This is these kids - whether there are charges brought or not, this is changing lives.

DISSELL: Sure, I mean, social media was a huge, huge, huge part of this trial. And I think for many of us sitting there, as they had the teens read these text messages in monotone voices, you know, we were shocked at what they said. I mean, the things that they were saying when they thought that parents and adults were not looking were definitely jaw-dropping, and I am sure that none of them wanted those to be revealed publicly.

But it sure taught me a lesson in what I don't know about teenagers these days, not only the language used but the context and the way that they were saying things to and about each other was - it was really hard to handle, actually.

CONAN: And as - do we think that there's more where those came from?

DISSELL: I'm sure that there are, but I think they went through probably the most salient and important text messages during the trial. You know, most of those were texts between the teens who were at the parties, also, you know, between one of the 17-year-old defendants and the victim in the aftermath of what happened, trying to convince her to kind of make it all go away.

But the casualness in which many of the teen boys were talking to each other, I mean no one's surprised, you know, at some of the conversations teen boys have, but the real casualness and kind of the nastiness in the way they spoke about the young women and asking each other to send pictures and describing pictures and describing acts. And I'm trying to be cautious because I'm on the radio. I can't really get into it.

CONAN: Thank you.

DISSELL: It was very hard to really decipher where they thought that they could talk like that about things that - it was shocking, especially seeing their parents sit there in court. They looked like somewhat normal, somewhat decent parents, and you're looking at them, and you're looking at the kids going how did this happen.

CONAN: And no sense of this is terrible, I must intervene, I have to act.

DISSELL: No, I think that there were one or two young men who were in the area who said they had wanted to intervene or maybe made a comment like you guys shouldn't be doing this. But really no one felt strong enough, like they could really stand up and speak up and say this can't be happening, I need to stop this.

However, in the aftermath, several people told the young woman that they tried to intervene on her behalf, even though we could tell during the trial that that wasn't really necessarily true.

CONAN: Rachel Dissell, we'll let you get back to work. Appreciate your time.

DISSELL: Thanks so much.

CONAN: Rachel Dissell of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who covered that trial in Steubenville. And I wanted to read you an email, Mr. Hodson. This is from Rudolph Peters(ph). Who was the adult that allowed these teens to have access to alcohol? That is what I want to know. And, well, how much of the culpability there is - well, I guess it depends how it happened.

HODSON: Well, it depends on how it happened, and we can't assume that any of the parents or adults at the homes where the children were consuming alcohol necessarily gave it to them. Children, underage children can have access to alcohol any number of ways, and it's very difficult to control.

Living in a university community here in Athens, Ohio, with Ohio University, we see underage people consuming alcohol all the time. So it's very difficult to go back unless you can prove that a certain parent authorized the party or authorized the consumption of alcohol.

CONAN: Ordered the keg, for example.

HODSON: Exactly, or knew that it was happening and condoned it. If I could just mention a couple of other quick things, though. Talking about social media, Neal, this is one of the first times that social media has really come up this big in this kind of trial. So it's going to be very interesting to watch as Attorney General DeWine pursues the grand jury. And by the way, they've asked for a visiting judge to come in from another part of the state to manage that so that there'll be no insinuation of any cover-up.

It's going to be interesting to see how they handle the social media aspect to this old and unused statute of failure to report a crime. Now we have text messages, we have videos, we have public comment, and so it's going to add a new wrinkle to that investigation. I have no idea how it's going to come out.

CONAN: Yeah, the prosecution was able to piece these together and almost create a real-time narrative.

HODSON: Correct.

CONAN: It will be interesting. Mr. Hodson, thank you very much for your time today.

HODSON: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Tom Hodson is director and general manager of the WOUB Center for Public Media at Ohio University, a former criminal defense attorney and trial judge. He joined us on the phone from his office there in Athens. Here's an email that we have: I witnessed the progression of a crime in a fast-food restaurant the other day. While I could have taken out my phone to record the incident, I chose instead to stand by in the event some nearby children would be harmed.

After the aggressor left the establishment, I felt I'd made the right choice to be an observer without falling back on a media device to record the event. I could also have chosen non-involvement by virtue of claiming not to be liable for getting involved. However, the minute the aggressor would have physically harmed any of the patrons or children, I would have become physically involved.

That's a question we all have to face, maybe, in this day and age, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's see if we can go to a phone call, and this is Troy(ph), Troy with us from Richmond.

TROY: Yes, hello, thank you for taking my call. I'd just like to say that first off, this is such an important topic, and it's so emotional that the first thing that needs to be said is it's really awful what happened to this poor girl, and that can't be overstated.

However, the reason why I'm calling is because I feel that sort of what we're doing as a community is looking for who to blame, and that seems to be a culture of kind of sacrificing someone so that we're not at fault when I think clearly it's us, all of us, that aren't having more complicated conversations with our neighbors, with our kids, with ourselves that's causing problems like this.

And when we try to criminalize everyone, I mean sure the law has to do what the law has to do, but outside that, we're not members of the law community, law enforcement community. We should be trying to find ways to communicate with everyone about this stuff so that - you know, right now if we tried to put this in the hands of the law, then everyone's going to lock down.

I think there's like 16 people in the story, and please forgive me if my numbers are wrong, that aren't saying anything.

CONAN: Right.

TROY: And that is because the law is involved, and the law is based on punishment. And this is not going to help us move forward. I mean, just to push an old axiom out in front of everything, the beginning of wisdom is to admit you don't know. And we don't know what happened here. We need to talk to each other.

CONAN: Isn't it the job of investigators to try to find out what did happen, and indeed if any of these 16 people, and I certainly don't know, but sometimes the allegations are made that, for example, they may have either taken or passed on some of those dreadful pictures?

TROY: I absolutely - well, there's two parts to what you're saying. I absolutely agree that it is the job of the investigators to do that. That's the job of the investigators. You and I are members of the community. We're talking about what happened, and we're really wasting our efforts trying to figure out who needs to be punished when we should be talking about kind of pulling apart the concepts that brought this about, what we're not talking about, what we consider like kind of dirty little secrets.

I mean obviously what these kids are talking about is much dirtier than what we're comfortable talking to them about, and just in the larger - to a larger extent, the other part of what you're saying as far as, you know, who got punished, well, it very well may be that these kids, these two kids that were sentenced, they got, you know, some kind of justice or - but that's not really going to help her.

She needs - she needs to have a community that she's comfortable in that this will not happen again in. This - she needs to have an exploration of, you know, how or what these people needed and why they were doing this. And we're talking about who we're going to blame so that we don't blame ourselves. And that's I think unhealthy. It's going to cause more of this to happen in the future.

CONAN: Troy, thanks very much for the call.

TROY: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Let's - here's - we're going to read from some op-eds. This, Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times in January suggesting that Delhi and Steubenville may not all be that different. The case in Steubenville has become controversial partly because the brutishness of the young men - the brutishness the young men have been accused of, but also because of concerns the authorities protected the football team. Some people in both Delhi and Steubenville rushed to blame the victim, suggesting she was at fault for taking a bus or going to a party. They need to think, what if that were me?

Michael Kimmel says there were more than two perpetrators in Steubenville. There are 18,437. They did what they did because they felt entitled to, because they knew they could get away with it, because they knew that their coaches, their families, their friends, their teammates and the police department, indeed the entire town, would rally around them and protect them from the consequences of what they've done, because the Steubenville Two is really the Steubenville 18,437. I've subtracted the girl victim and her parents. Until the community rallies around the victim and not the perpetrators, the shame of gang rape is on them all. All.

Let's see if we can go next to - this is Matt, and Matt with us from Syracuse.

MATT #1: Hi there. Good afternoon. I'm a teacher at a high school outside of Syracuse, New York, and I'm a mandated reporter like you were mentioning earlier in the broadcast. And recently I had a student report some confidential information about some abuse, and I had to report that information. And it was very conflicting because the relationships that teachers feel with their students, they're really integral to the learning process. But I also have a legal and, I think, a moral opportunity and obligation to report that information. I think that...

CONAN: Just to clarify, Matt, did the student say, can I tell you this in private?

MATT #1: Yes, yes, they did tell me that in confidence, the information that they told me. But once I realized that this information fell under the mandated reporter umbrella, I had to inform the student that I had to report that information. It was very conflicting. I mean it was - the relationship was strained right there. I mean they chose to confide in me, and then I had to report it to authorities. But at the end of the day I realized that that is my duty. That student's safety is my utmost priority. And I think also that the students, they realized that when they're giving this information to teachers or to adults, they realized that they're really extending a hand-out. They're looking for help.

CONAN: Did the authorities take appropriate action?

MATT #1: Yes, yes, they did.

CONAN: I'm glad to hear that. And the student's safe?

MATT #1: Yes, the student is very safe, safe and happy.

CONAN: I'm glad to hear that too. Matt, thanks very much. I appreciate your problem and thanks very much for sharing it.

MATT #1: Yep. Thank you. Have a good day.

CONAN: We're talking about responsibility, accountability in Steubenville, both moral and legal. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. This email from Six of Six: Those boys were near as drunk as the girl. Why are they more responsible for not controlling their impulses than she? We have heard that the lawyer for one of the young men will argue that the teen brains are not fully developed. However, there is a difference between - in terms of drunkenness, probably, all equally responsible. She did not do anything. She was done to. I think that's the distinction.

There's another email from Sharon. If the coach just heard some hearsay about the rape, is he legally responsible to report rumors? Well, I guess it depends on the quality of the rumors, and that could be up to a grand jury to decide that.

Let's go next to - this is Matt. Matt with us from Columbus.

MATT #2: Yes. Thank you. I find it interesting that we can see with clarity half a world away when the eve-teasing in India drags women off of buses and out of crowds and into trouble and - as in Ohio. And I'm finding it heartening that we're taking a much harder line with our sons.

CONAN: There was...

MATT #2: One of the - yes?

CONAN: There was at least a moment when it did appear that they might not.

MATT #2: There are always those moments, and I take, I guess, issue with the previous caller about all 18,000 of the Steubenville folks being lumped into one bundle. Certainly I can see that there were partisans in this issue. But in the end we are a society of consent. We're having an important discussion about that consent. We could expand that a little bit further to instruct our kids about witness as well, you know, as opposed to being the bystanders, what - in addition, not to be chasing down defenseless people who cannot consent, what it is our duty to do when we see it as opposed to stand by and laugh. And finally, there probably ought to be some civil involvement of the parents of the houses that were holding the parties in which this conduct was enabled.

CONAN: That may come later. We'll have to see. Appreciate it, Matt.

MATT #2: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's see if we can go next to Lorie(ph), and Lorie with us from Winlock in Washington.

LORIE: Hi. There's a whole aspect of this that I haven't really heard anybody speak about yet. Maybe they've touched on it. But it's the fact that, you know, as a society we're individuals and we are a corporate society. We all have something to do with the society we live in. None of us is, you know, an island. And what I keep thinking about in this is that I keep seeing this correlation between dehumanizing people. Our society today - and we can go back and figure out all kinds of reasons - but part of it is that our technology has developed faster than we know how to deal with it.

And I don't - I guess what I'm trying to say is that we have all kinds of things on television and video games and everywhere else to teach our kids that it's OK to kill and shoot and maim. And I have - I'm 60 years old and I have grandchildren who spend so many hours on video games. And the bloodier it is, they better they like it. This is the boys, of course. But we don't value humans as we used to and I'm talking about society as a whole. And I know that will bring up - there's a lot of people who do value humankind and life, but we disregard life so much. We take it for granted so much in so many ways. We've got kids doing what these boys did, and all the bystanders that either joined in or clapped or laughed or didn't tell somebody, didn't help, and then all the people afterwards that are now trying to point fingers and blame and everything else. And in all of that there's this whole dehumanization of this young girl who didn't know what was happening to her, and it's so horrible. And we've got kids killing kids in school, strangers walking into a room or a building and shooting strangers and on the street. And I think that the big issue is that we have this whole dehumanizing, this whole disvalue of life.

CONAN: Thank you, Lorie.

LORIE: You're welcome.

CONAN: And thanks to everybody who called. We appreciate it. Coming up next, red lines in Syria and Iraq. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.