Jill Smolowe
April 01, 2013 12:00 PM

She didn’t remember most of the night in question, and she hadn’t initially wanted to press charges. But when the 16-year-old high school junior finally took the stand in Steubenville, Ohio’s juvenile court on March 16, her story left no doubt about the actions of the two football players who were standing trial. Speaking publicly for the first time, the victim described how she and two girlfriends purchased 44-oz. slushies last Aug. 11, mixed them with vanilla-flavored Smirnoff vodka, then proceeded to a party. After getting rip-roaring drunk, she was left with only a few mental images of the evening: Leaving the party holding hands with team quarterback Trent Mays. Vomiting in a street. Waking up the next morning, naked beneath a blanket, in a different house. Two days later she saw a partygoer joking on a YouTube video about a “dead” girl who had been raped. “That,” the girl testified, “is kind of when I knew.”

Now the world knows too. Working from text messages, social media posts and cell phone photos, one of which showed the victim naked and curled up on her side, prosecutors pieced together a night of drunken mayhem during which Mays, 17, and teammate Ma’lik Richmond, 16, penetrated the passed-out girl with their fingers—rape, under Ohio law. Found guilty by a judge on March 17, Richmond was sentenced to a minimum of one year in juvenile detention; Mays, who was additionally found guilty of taking and sharing the nude photo of the victim, was sentenced to at least two years. Sobbing, Richmond said to his attorney Walter Madison, “My life is over. No one will want me.” Minutes later Richmond was poignantly tossed a lifeline by a surprising source: the girl’s mother. “Ma’lik came over to her and said he was sorry,” says the girl’s attorney Bob Fitzsimmons. “The mom said, ‘I know you are, and I accept that.'”

Even so, it will be months before the healing process can begin for the shell-shocked residents of working-class Steubenville, where nerves had frayed since the assault as anonymous texts, tweets and e-mails painted the town as a football-besotted enclave engaged in a conspiracy to protect its celebrated high school team. After the verdict Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced plans to convene a grand jury to investigate possible evidence tampering, failure to report a felony and reports of another rape last spring, raising the prospect of more charges and trials. “We need to say enough is enough,” DeWine said. “Rape is not a recreational activity.”

The 18,000 residents of Steubenville know that, but they resent the way the town has been defined by the events of last August, leaving them unwitting defendants in a trial of a different order: Steubenville v. The World. “You pull up ‘Steubenville’ on the Internet, and all you see is ‘rape’,” says Jill Watkins, 37, whose son Jeno Atkins, 17, a senior, played on the football team. “I want my town to stop being harassed.”

In the months before the trial, anguish and fear mounted throughout the town as an online hacker group called Anonymous waged a campaign blaming more football players. Members of a local youth-football team encountered taunts of “junior rapists.” Then it got worse: Other teams quit the league and formed their own, sans Steubenville. And all of the town’s schools faced a frightening lockdown on Jan. 8, less than a month after the carnage in Newtown, Conn., after an online threat. The town’s youth, says Cathy Davison, Steubenville’s city manager, “feel they’re getting blamed for the actions of a few individuals.”

The most vicious vitriol has been directed at families connected to the town’s Big Red football team. Watkins, a hairstylist, hangs up on anonymous phone calls laced with invective and threats. But she can’t look the other way when it comes to her kids. “Jeno’s gotten death threats on Twitter,” she says. “A hate group has put my daughter’s pictures on the Internet. She’s 9 years old.” But even as she safeguards her kids, she is aware that good can come out of this verdict. “We all need to become more aware of things that can happen with underage drinking,” she says. “I respect the decision.” So does Patricia Taylor, 54, a Steubenville native who says she was twice assaulted sexually and both times was discouraged from filing a report. “I’m very thankful to [the victim] that she stood up for this,” she says.

For the victim, justice has now been served, but no ruling can undo the horror of what happened to her. In the weeks after the rape, according to her mother, her friends ostracized her, she slept little and was often distraught. Hearteningly, she seems to be moving on with her life. “She’s back to school full-time, she played a fall sport, she made the honor roll,” says Fitzsimmons, her attorney. “She’s trying to do everything she can to live a normal life—and doing a pretty good job at it.”

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