Two Ohio high-school football players accused of raping a teenage girl may not get a fair trial after a photo and video allegedly associated with the case were posted on the Internet by the computer hacking group Anonymous, a lawyer for one of the accused said on Friday.
Ma'lik Richmond and Trenton Mays, both 16 and members of the Steubenville High School football team, are charged with raping a 16-year-old fellow student last August, according to statements from their attorneys to local and national media.
Their juvenile court trial is scheduled for February in Steubenville, a city of 19,000 about 40 miles west of Pittsburgh.
The case shot to national prominence this week when Anonymous activists made public a picture allegedly of the rape victim, being carried by her wrists and ankles by two young men, and of a video that showed several other young men joking about an alleged assault.
Richmond's lawyer, Walter Madison, said on CNN that his client was one of the young men in the photograph, but does not appear in the video.
But the picture "is out of context," Madison said. "That young lady is not unconscious," as has been widely reported.
"A right to a fair trial for these young men has been hijacked," Madison said, adding that social media episodes such as this have become a major threat to a criminal defendant's right to a fair trial.
"It's very, very serious and fairness is essential to getting the right decision here," he said.
Mays' attorney Adam Nemann could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday. In an interview on Thursday with Columbus, Ohio, broadcaster WBNS-10TV, Nemann raised concerns about the effect the Anonymous postings could have on potential witnesses in the case.
"This media has become so astronomically ingrained on the Internet and within that society, I am concerned witnesses might not want to come forward at this point. I would be surprised now, if there weren't witnesses now who might want to start taking the Fifth Amendment," Nemann told the station.
The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution offers protection against self-incrimination in criminal proceedings.
The case has also been a challenge for local officials because of conflicts of interest. Both the local prosecutor and police have close ties to the school that the defendants attend.
As a result, the case is being investigated and prosecuted by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine's office.
Interviewed on CNN on Friday, DeWine said it was not unusual for his office to prosecute or investigate cases in small towns where close ties within the community caused conflicts of interest to arise.
He also voiced concern about how social media may affect the case.
"This case needs to be tried not in the media, not in social media," DeWine said.
He said Anonymous' attempt to shame the alleged attackers had actually harmed the victim.
Not only is the victim hurt by the initial crime, but "every time something goes up on the Internet, the victim is victimized again," DeWine said.
(Reporting by Dan Burns and Peter Rudegeair; Editing by Bernadette Baum)