Conversation with DeWine

The following is a sit-down question-and-answer interview with Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine conducted by John McCabe of Ogden Newspapers.

The interview concerns the upcoming juvenile court trial of two 16-year-old Steubenville High School students who have been charged with raping an underage girl after end-of-summer parties five months ago.

Recently, visiting Juvenile Judge Thomas Lipps ruled the trial will be held in open court, and he denied a motion for a change of venue. The trial was pushed back to March 13.

Trent Mays of Bloomingdale and Ma’Lik Richmond of Steubenville have been charged with raping the girl, also 16, at a party Aug. 11-12. Mays also is charged with illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material, the result of pictures of the naked victim that investigators testified were attached to text messages allegedly sent from his cell phone. Attorneys for both defendants have denied the charges in court.

Q: The two teen defendants in the Steubenville rape case are set for trial March 13. What outcome do you expect from your prosecution?

DeWine: These charges were initially filed before we were asked to prosecute them, but we concur in the charges. We will present the evidence – we have a very experienced lawyer who will present the case, she’s been involved in many cases. We’re in the process now of continuing to interview witnesses. She will present the case, and that will ultimately be up to not a jury – this is not a jury, this is a judge, a visiting judge from Cincinnati – who will ultimately make the decision whether these individuals are found to be delinquent by reason of committing a rape or another crime.

Q: Much of the talk surrounding this case has dealt with what many believe is a cover-up – that local authorities did not do their job during the initial phase of the investigation, allegedly because the two defendants played football at Steubenville High School. Do you have an opinion about how this case was handled before your office got involved, and how has it been handled since?

DeWine: I hope when we’re done with this, whatever the outcome, and that’s obviously up to the judge, that people in the community and across the state will feel that justice has been done, and will feel that it’s been a thorough investigation.

When we got into it, our objective was to leave no stone unturned, to interview anyone who knew anything about it. And we’re not only talking about the actual incident itself, but we’re investigating who knew what, when. Anybody else who had information, anybody else who might have done anything wrong. So far, only two individuals have been charged, and they’ve been charged with the actual offense itself, which we believe we can show that these … juveniles committed the crime of rape. But ultimately, that’s going to be up to the judge.

I understand that on social media, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether or not there’s been a cover-up. We were asked to prosecute this case, we have investigated the case, we have no reason – you know, I’m from the southwestern part of (Ohio), the prosecutor who’s prosecuting the case for me is not from Steubenville or Jefferson County – so there’s no reason to think that we have any ax to grind in this. The judge who was assigned to the case is from Cincinnati, he is a well-experienced, well-respected juvenile judge, there’s no reason to think that he has any angle in this case, either. So I hope that in the end people will be satisfied that justice has been done, whatever the outcome.

Q: Jefferson County Prosecutor Jane Hanlin recused herself from the case on Aug. 27 – more than two weeks after the alleged rape occurred, 11 days after Jefferson County law enforcement authorities seized evidence against the two defendants and others, and five days after the defendants were arrested. Given her conflict of interest – I believe her son goes to school with the defendants – should she have recused herself earlier?

DeWine: I think her decision to step down is very understandable. Her son is on the football team, she knows people in that community. So I think it’s understandable that she asked us to come in and actually handle the prosecution. As far as whether she should have stepped down earlier, it would not have made any difference at all in how this case is being handled. If she had stepped out earlier we would have stepped in earlier, it wouldn’t have mattered at all.

Q: Are you surprised at the national attention that’s been garnered by the Steubenville rape case? And what are your thoughts on the online and victim advocate groups that have called on your office to prosecute everyone involved?

DeWine: I think this is unusual; the facts of the case, tragically, are not that unusual. But everything surrounding the case, in the social media particularly, has been unusual. From the initial night when information was being text back and forth, to the postings on the Internet. … I guess what bothers me … is that it’s always difficult for a victim, any victim, to testify. I think it’s particularly tough for a victim who is a victim of sexual assault. Even more difficult if that victim of sexual assault is a juvenile. So here we have a 16-year-old victim who went through the event, is going to have to testify, and in addition – and I think this is what’s unusual about this case – in addition to that she’s been subjected to continuing victimization, she’s continued to be victimized by the social media.

The postings that have been up on the Internet – the one that’s go so much attention, the man who was I would say obviously drunk who was talking for 10-12 minutes and degrading her. He wasn’t there at the event, but this was recorded in close proximity of time, at least, to when the event occurred, and it’s just obnoxious, and her family has to endure that. I think that’s what been particularly difficult about this case and what’s been unusual about this case.

Q: How much more difficult has the social media aspect of this case made your job as a prosecutor?

DeWine: A lot of what I’ve read in the social media is just dead wrong. It’s not like the mainstream media, where we have editors, and people who fact-check things, and there’s a responsibility, and nothing really gets printed unless there’s sources, and all the good practices that newspapers have and that journalists have in general. That just goes out the window when you’re talking about the social media. Anybody can post any lie or any speculation they want to on the Internet, and it takes on a life of its own.

It is a difficult situation. I’m not sure it makes it difficult for us, but I think it makes it difficult for the victim, I think it makes it difficult for the community. It gets people all riled up about things that sometimes are just dead wrong, and we have to stay focused, we don’t want to try this case in the social media nor in the media. Our obligation as lawyers is to go into court … to present the evidence, and the judge or the jury makes the decision. We’ve seen all this information that’s dead wrong but we really don’t have all that much ability to do anything about it.

Q: There have been conflicting reports as to whether your office granted immunity to the three students who testified at the probable cause hearing. A letter sent to one of the three students reads, in part, “Although your client may not have conducted himself in a responsible manner or appropriate manner, his behavior did not rise to the level of any criminal conduct.” Can you explain what that letter means?

DeWine: First of all, we made no deal with any of the witnesses. We did not grant immunity, which actually has to be granted by a court. … We did send a letter … to three witnesses, and in essence what those letters say is we do not believe, based on the information we have at this time, that the elements of any crime are there to prosecute that individual. That was a statement of fact.

Q: So there’s no chance any of those three will be prosecuted in this case after the rape trial is resolved?

DeWine: We do not have the elements at this moment to charge any of them.

Q: Did anyone else receive such a letter from your office in regard to the rape case?

DeWine: No

Q: What, if any, additional charges in relation to this case do you expect following the rape trial?

DeWine: Our investigation is continuing, I get briefed on it every few days. I just had a briefing (Wednesday) morning, in fact, from our BCI agents and lawyers who are working on the case. We are still interviewing witnesses. We are looking not only at what happened at the scene, but what happened afterward. That’s the phase of the investigation we’re on now. … Whether or not there will be (additional) criminal charges, I just don’t know. We want to complete the investigation and then we’ll sit down and make that decision whether there’s evidence to prosecute anyone else. If there’s evidence to prosecute someone we’ll do it, if there’s not we obviously will not do it.

Q: Do you expect to charge the owners of the homes where the parties were held?

DeWine: I’m not going to exclude anybody. We’re going to look at every aspect of this; this was a tragic night, yet people who had knowledge of it – knowledge in and of itself is not a crime under Ohio law – but there could be some possibility of people being charged. Again, the investigation continues, and we’re continuing to interview witnesses, although we’re getting close to the end of that.

Q: You pulled a number of BCI agents off other cases to assist with the Steubenville case. Why? What role did they serve?

DeWine: I think it’s important that when we’re done, people in the community feel justice was done, that we left no stone unturned and that we looked at the totality of this case. All the speculation, all the experts out there on the social media continue to ferment this discussion. I think the community needs to be done with this.

But the only way the community can be done is if they believe there’s been a very, very thorough investigation, so that’s what I’m committed to doing.

Q: Your office initially did not take a stance on whether the trial should be open to the press and the public. That changed last month after you met with the alleged victim. What caused the shift?

DeWine: It’s exactly what you said – I personally met with the victim and I met with the victim’s parents. We had a very good discussion, and during that meeting I made the decision this victim doesn’t need to go through a public trial. In juvenile court it’s up to the judge whether it’s open or not, historically … almost all juvenile court proceedings were not public. More of them have become public in the last few years, but ultimately it’s up to the judge.

The initial request to have it closed came from the defense, and we basically then joined that. … Frankly, I was following the wishes of the victim. The victim is very willing to testify, she is going to testify, the judge … has ruled that this should be in public, which we accept, and the victim accepts, and the victim will testify in open court.

Q: You’ve met with the victim. How would you describe how she’s handling the proceedings?

DeWine: I think this is very difficult for the family. … I met with the mom and the dad, as well as the victim. If this was my child, I would just be torn up by it, the prospect of her having to testify. I think it would be very tough. She’s doing OK, this is a tough situation for her to go through. The judge has continued the trial, I fully understand that, I accept it, but the sooner this can get over with, I think the better it’s going to be for the victim.

Q: The alleged crime happened in August, and right now we’re looking at a March 13 trial date. In your opinion, is that a reasonable timeline?

DeWine: I don’t think that’s unusual. … The judge has to balance the rights of the defendant, when you have defense counsel ask for a continuance, I think it’s pretty tough in many cases for a judge not to grant that. But it’s tough for the victim, it’s tough to have to wait that long to finally be able to get this over with.

Q: You mentioned earlier that more juvenile cases are now open to the press and public. Is there a reason for that shift?

DeWine: I think it’s the whole move toward transparency. When I was a prosecuting attorney we didn’t have cameras in adult courts, that has been a change. I think the whole trend … is toward more openness, more transparency. In this case, we have a victim who is 16, we have the defendants who are juveniles, we have most of the witnesses who are juveniles, so all these kids are kids. I think there’s some logic behind the old way of doing it, which is to not have it open to the public.

My concern, frankly, is just with the victim, for her having to go through this and doing it in open court.