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Social media, handmaiden to justice

The Steubenville rape case was tried twice, once in court, once in social media.

The court verdict came down Sunday when Ma'Lik Richmond, 16, and co-defendant Trent Mays, 17, were found guilty of raping an intoxicated 16-year-old Weirton, W.Va., girl last year at a party.

The teens, who were tried as juveniles, were sentenced to a minimum one year each in an Ohio Department of Youth Services facility. They could be held there until they are 21.

National and international media followed last week's trial and verdict. But well before there was any testimony, or even any charges, the case played out on social media.

In fact, that's where it first came to light.

There was the infamous Instagram photo of two young men carrying the victim by her arms and legs. Then the hundreds and hundreds of tweets that followed by party-goers about the events that night, some bragging about what they had done.

The victim took to the Internet to text-message her side of the story.

"I wasn't being a slut.  They were taking advantage of me," she wrote.

And then, perhaps most disturbing, there was the 12-minute-long video taken the night of the attack on which a former classmate of the defendants laughingly describes what was done to the victim.

So immediately after the event, social media were used to further embarrass the victim and as a platform for the miscreants to brag. Time magazine wrote last January that the case had, "swept through social media, scattering rage and snap judgments like debris over an episode of enormous gravity."

But eventually, it was social media that came to the rescue of the young victim, even when those at the drunken party would not.

An online hacker group called Anonymous began a campaign for justice in the case, revealing details of what happened at the party and organizing rallies.

When the trial began last week, it was the Internet chatter that formed a case against the two. Yale law professor and author Adam Cohen wrote in an opinion piece for Time:

"The prosecution introduced many text messages. All of this documentation proved critical to a conviction.

Sexual-assault trials often come down to 'he said, she said' battles.

Cases like the Steubenville rape, which the victim has few memories of, can be especially hard for prosecutors to win.

"Text messages from wrongdoers and viral videos from bystanders provided a robust record of what actually happened."

The events of last summer in Steubenville were a tragedy. Lives have been damaged and forever altered. And we have further proof that in this age, very little behavior is immune from public access.

That's a chilling thought.

But it's strangely comforting to know that we are more likely to have a record that can be used, when necessary, to achieve justice.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. The show can be heard locally on WCHS 580 AM.



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