COLUMBUS: The state attorney general says the trial of two high school football players charged with raping a 16-year-old girl should be closed to the public to protect her, a sentiment supported by the accuser, her parents and one of the defendants.
News organizations, including the Associated Press, lined up on the other side of the debate Wednesday, arguing that openness is the best way to ensure public confidence in the proceedings.
Judge Thomas Lipps is set to hold a hearing Friday to take testimony from both sides, then decide. He already has rejected a request to try the two players separately.
The football players are accused of attacking the girl twice after an alcohol-fueled party in mid-August in Steubenville. Three other students who witnessed the attack but weren’t charged are expected to testify at next month’s trial.
The girl attends a different high school across the river in West Virginia.
The girl and her parents want the trial closed to keep evidence that a judge might rule inadmissible from becoming public, their attorney argued in a court filing Tuesday. That could include “harmful” and “legally nonrelevant” evidence, attorney Robert Fitzsimmons said.
Keeping the hearing closed also would protect the girl, who has maintained her anonymity through the proceedings, Fitzsimmons said.
The Associated Press and the Beacon Journal generally don’t identity people who say they are the victims of sexual assault.
Attorney General Mike DeWine, whose office is prosecuting the case, said Wednesday that he has met with the girl and she’s “doing OK.” “We’re dealing with a 16-year-old victim,” DeWine said. “It’s difficult enough for her to testify without testifying in front of the whole world.”
DeWine said the girl would testify even if the trial remains open.
News organizations arguing to keep the hearing open say the case is already subject to speculation it won’t be fully investigated and prosecuted because it involves the city’s popular football team.
“Closure of these proceedings would only intensify these concerns and fan the flames of any perception that the allegations will not be handled properly,” said Columbus attorney Kevin Shook in his filing on behalf of the AP, ABC, CNN, CBS News, the New York Times and WEWS-TV.
The lawyer for defendant Ma’Lik Richmond wants the trial closed out of concern that publicity and social media commentary could lead to witness intimidation. Attorney Walter Madison cited threats he said were made by hacker-activist group Anonymous to retaliate against people perceived as helping his client.
“If material witnesses are reluctant to testify, this will jeopardize Ma’Lik Richmond’s constitutional rights to present a defense,” Madison said in a Jan. 11 filing.
Shook said Lipps, a judge brought in from Hamilton County to oversee the case, has other options for dealing with potential witness intimidation.