Something happened today that is exceedingly rare in America, and the world — justice was served in a rape case. News outlets are reporting that 17-year old Trent Mays and 16-year old Ma’lik Richmond, both of whom are star football players at Steubenville High School in Ohio, were found guilty of raping a 16-year old girl last August.
On the one hand, the guilty verdicts shouldn’t be surprising. This case became so notorious largely because there was so much corroborating evidence. Eyewitnesses tweeted about the assault and, horrifyingly, posted photos of the passed out victim on Facebook. There was DNA evidence. Consent was never an issue, because the victim was either unconscious or to intoxicated to give meaningful consent.
On the other hand, many in the town rallied to the rapists’ defense and vilified the victim — a fairly classic move in these cases, particularly in cultures that valorize sports heroes. I’ll never forget an infamous rape case that occurred in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, a town close to where I grew up. In 1989, a gang of high school jocks raped a developmentally disabled girl (she had an IQ of 64) with a baseball bat — and yet the town rallied around the jocks and viciously attacked the girl’s reputation. It was sick. The rapists were convicted, though, and the case was the subject of an acclaimed book.
Getting back to Steubenville, it’s notable that the case was decided not by a jury but by a judge. I have to wonder whether if the case had gone to a jury composed of members of the Steubenville community, the verdict would have been the same.
And again, it bears repeating that rape convictions are exceedingly rare. Using statistics from the Justice Department and the FBI, RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) reports that out of every 100 rapes that occur, 46 get reported to police, 12 lead to an arrest, 9 get prosecuted, 5 lead to a felony conviction, and 3 see the inside of a prison cell. The other 97 lucky rapists walk free.
While at some level, it’s sad to see two such young men — or (almost) anyone, really — spend time in our awful prison system, prison sentences serve an extremely important purpose. It’s not even about them or their victim as individuals, it’s about the message that is sent. Jll Filipovic has noted that research shows that “cultural opposition to rape myths makes men less likely to commit assault, and acceptance of those myths makes sexual assault more likely.”
I believe that the same thing holds for how rape is treated in our criminal justice system. We have to show that rape is never minimized, excused or tolerated by a decent society, and that rapists must pay for their crimes. Today’s conviction in Ohio has probably prevented countless rapes from occurring, by unambiguously demonstrating the consequences.. A powerful blow against rape culture has been struck.