Steubenville, Two Years Later

Photo: Keith Srakocic/AP Images.
It’s been two years since Steubenville, Ohio was all we talked about. A teenage girl, called Jane Doe for her protection, woke up one morning to find videos and images of herself all over social media. As she pieced together what had happened and filed charges against members of the high school football team, the case gained national attention. What followed was a murky wave of outrage over sexual assault, allegations of corruption in the Steubenville police department, threats against Jane Doe, and involvement of the hacker group Anonymous, which outed the accused.

Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond, a pair of teenage football players from Steubenville High School, were charged with rape, but their juvenile status protected them from facing adult punishment: Richmond was sentenced to a minimum of one year and Trent Mays got a two-year sentence in juvenile detention and an additional charge of "illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material." He will also remain registered as a sex offender.

With recent rape allegations against celebrities like Bill Cosby and headline-making activism around sexual assault on college campuses, it’s easy to forget about the case that ushered in this new age of awareness. There was nothing particularly unique about the crime itself: A young woman incapacitated by alcohol was taken advantage of at a party as others looked on and failed to intervene. It was the aftermath that made this case remarkable. Never before had victim-blaming played out so publicly on social media.  
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On the night of the assault, one student tweeted, “Whores are hilarious.” Patrick Pizzoferrato, a Steubenville athlete who had been present at the party and admitted to offering $3 to anyone who urinated on the victim, tweeted, “If they’re getting ‘raped’ and don’t resist then to me it’s not rape. I feel bad for her but still.” Yet another wrote, “Some people deserved to be peed on,” which Mays retweeted.

It didn’t just play out on Twitter, either: In a 12-minute video posted to YouTube, recent graduate Michael Nodianos joked of the incident, "They raped her quicker than Mike Tyson," and "They raped her more than the Duke lacrosse team." Most shocking of all, Cody Saltsman, the victim’s ex-boyfriend, posted a photo on Instagram showing Richmond and Mays carrying a lifeless Jane Doe by her arms and feet. It was an image that New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny referred to as “rape culture's Abu Ghraib moment.”

This social media bread crumb trail got a signal boost from crime blogger Alexandria Goddard, who is credited with bringing the case to national attention. Then, things took a surreal turn, when the hacker group Anonymous got involved, defacing the football team’s website, outing several players linked to the rape, and planning protests dubbed “Occupy Steubenville.” The rest is history as far as public perception is concerned, but those connected to the case are still very much living it every day.
 
Photo: Keith Srakocic/AP Images.

With the anniversary of the convictions approaching, Refinery29 found out how Jane Doe is doing, spoke with key people — including the blogger that broke the story and the hacker who outed Mays and Richmond — and considered the case’s lasting cultural impact. 

Jane Doe isn’t speaking with the media, but her social media presence does tell a story. She’s in college now and in a relationship with a 19-year-old football player who went to her small Catholic high school in West Virginia. His Twitter account is ornamented with selfies of the couple — playfully pressing their tongues together, nuzzling nose-to-nose — and links to her social media account alongside a heart emoji. Jane’s Twitter page displays a photo of her sandwiched by two female friends who pucker their lips as they plant kisses on her cheeks.
 There is every hint that she is moving on with her life — perhaps none more powerful than Jane’s Facebook cover photo, which shows her standing in a bikini facing a body of water with her arms held open wide to the world.

“She's doing as well as can be expected,” says her lawyer, Robert Fitzsimmons. “She still has periods of time where there's an emotional impact. Unfortunately, there's still more frequent reminders than you would hope that there would be.”

The most recent reminder was a guilty plea in late February by William Rhinaman, the former technology director at Steubenville High School, for deleting computer files relating to the school’s investigation of the rape. In January, charges of obstructing justice and tampering with evidence were dropped against ex-superintendent Mike McVey after he resigned. These were just the latest outcomes of a grand jury indictment of several school officials in connection to the case. 

There were certainly much more disturbing reminders over the past two years: Shortly after Richmond and Mays were convicted, two teenage girls were arrested for using social media to threaten Jane with injury or death. Her family has faced harassment and threats, as well. “This family had an inordinate amount of suffering and they still do,” Fitzsimmons says. “At one point, somebody had threatened to burn their house down. For a period of time, they had police stationed in the neighborhood because of it.”
 
The harassment has also followed Deric Lostutter, the activist member of Anonymous who outed Richmond and Mays. “It's taken a couple years for me to find a job,” he said. “I went through three or four evictions, three different cities, had people calling and harassing places I worked for,” said Lostutter, who is also known as KYAnonymous. Now he’s forming his own business, Cybersecurity Solutions LLC, which fittingly, given his claim to fame, will specialize in protecting companies from hackers. It’s possible that any day now his story will get the Hollywood treatment: Last year, Brad Pitt’s production company bought the rights to a Rolling Stone profile of Lostutter. 
Things are especially looking up in his personal life, though: He got married to his girlfriend of two-and-a-half months who has a 7-year-old kid. “So, I inherited a son, too,” he said. 

There is just that one thing hanging over his head: “I'm still under active investigation by the FBI,” he said. “They have until September 25, 2017 to charge me with a crime.” If convicted on hacking charges, he could face up to 25 years in prison, which is more than eight times the three years collectively served by the rapists in this case. But, Lostutter believes the FBI is just trying to make him sweat a little and won't bring him up on charges: “They're sitting on it knowing that the possibility of charging me with a crime is a lot worse than actually getting the punishment,” he said. 

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lexandria Goddard, the crime blogger, not only received daily harassment for her involvement, she ultimately moved across the country a year ago out of fear of what her tormentors might do to her. Goddard, who has been accused of creating “an Internet lynch mob,” made plenty of enemies by publishing the names of several Steubenville football players whom she accused of participating in, or failing to stop, the assault, and by alleging a cover-up by officials in the case. 
In an odd twist, her former best friend from her days in Steubenville, Connie Lulla, whom she had a falling out with over the case and who is married to an agent with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations, tweeted the name of Goddard’s street in California. Someone else posted photos of the campground at the end of the road that she lived on.

“I freaked out, because I had had threats,” she said. “I flipped out! They know where I live! And, I don't know who's harassing me; these are anonymous names on Twitter, and I don't know what they're capable of.” So, she packed up her car and drove back to Ohio, of all places. “I thought, they'll never, even for a second, believe that I'm back here,” she said. 

She continued to face daily online harassment until a couple months ago, when the Twitter provocations began to die down. “I don't know what happened that caused them all to take their toys and go home,” she said, “but it's a relief.” Things are hardly back to normal, though. She currently does legal consulting but doesn’t even advertise her business because she’s afraid her clients will be harassed. 
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Photo: Andrew Welsh-Huggins/AP Images.
It’s clear that the town of Steubenville itself is traumatized by the case and the media attention it brought with it. Mays and Richmond have both been released from juvenile detention. Richmond has even returned to the high school football field. An effort to reach out to dozens of Steubenville High School students on Facebook received only one response: “I'm sorry but that's in my past. I don't want to answer any questions, but thank you.” Nathaniel Richmond, Ma’lik’s father, responded to an interview request: “Not interested in media fabrications thanks but no thanks.” So, it’s difficult to get a sense of how this case has affected attitudes toward sexual assault in the Ohio town.  

Goddard believes that Steubenville hasn’t learned anything. “They welcomed Ma’lik back with open arms,” she said. “They cheered him on every Friday night. It was odd for everyone else looking in to see that happening, but the locals didn't see it that way. They're still embracing rape culture.” Some see Richmond’s return to normal life in Steubenville in a much more positive light, though: As Amanda Hess wrote on Slate, “A juvenile’s rehabilitation and reentry into society is integral to preventing rape in the future.” 
There is at least one clear example of a lesson not learned. In November of last year, Matt Belardine, a former volunteer football coach at Steubenville High School and the host of the party that kicked off that fateful night, was arrested after getting in a fight with protesters at a police brutality rally in Scottsdale, AZ. A female protester, who was among a group wearing the Guy Fawkes masks associated with Anonymous, alleged that Belardine shouted things including, "I'm from Steubenville, fuck Anonymous, you're a bunch of pussies” and “We rape whores like you." She says Belardine and his friend “got back into my face and threatened to rape me at least a dozen times.”  

If there is one thing that distinguishes Steubenville from the countless other similar sexual assault cases that come before it, it’s the role that social media played. In a New Yorker article titled “Trial By Twitter,” Ariel Levy wrote, “Fifteen years ago, Richmond and Mays would have escaped suspicion: Before smartphones and Twitter, rumors floated around high schools and then dissipated, often before adults knew what was real and what was adolescent imagination.” Law professor Thaddeus Hoffmeister, author of the book Social Media in the Courtroom, agreed: “Without social media it would have never gone forward,” he said. “They couldn't prosecute these boys because you wouldn't have evidence, the evidence was on social media.” In fact, it was the evidence on social media that helped the victim, who had little memory of the night, piece together what had happened to her. 

The cost of that evidence was huge, though. Tweets and Instagram comments seemed to take joy in publicly shaming the victim, and they only inspired further ridicule of her. Katie Hanna, executive director of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence, said, “The teen response on social media initially during the Steubenville case was incredibly negative and very victim-blaming, but then we saw a shift throughout the trial and in the last two years. Many more people are intervening online to say, ‘This isn't acceptable.’” 
Tracy Cox, the communications director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Centerattributes that change to the immediate feedback of Twitter. “In the day and age of social media, when [victim-blaming] happens, people are calling you on it immediately,” she says. “There's a level of accountability now through social media. It's a great activism tool.”

As Cox sees it, the social media backlash to the victim-blaming in the Steubenville case has brought about real change — not just on Twitter but in mainstream media coverage, as well. One prime example is the 2013 Vanderbilt University rape case, which involved several college football players and an incapacitated female undergrad. “The coverage in that was a lot different from Steubenville,” said Cox. “We saw a lot less victim blaming; that speaks volumes about how the culture has shifted and how the mindset has shifted.”
 

Increasingly, that dynamic does look wrong to the general public. That is thanks in no small part to Steubenville, which showed rape as it often is — not an act of violence perpetrated by a stranger lurking in the shadows, but a crime of opportunity committed by an acquaintance. Activists have been fighting for that conceptual shift for ages, but the Steubenville case essentially made the idea go viral, the impact of which continues to be shown. 
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