The long and potentially dead-end grand jury process is underway in the rape case in Steubenville, Ohio, but potential new civil suits against the adults who own the houses where the multiple attacks occurred may shed light on several unanswered legal questions: Where were the parents when a 16-year-old girl was being raped in an alcohol fueled night of partying? Who else could be held responsible for a sex crime with an online diary? And what is the new line of privacy for football post-game party hosts when the party turns into a national dialogue? Local law experts and an examination of testimony about the three houses in question reveal that, well, the grown-ups in Steubenville might get off the hook — and the jagged puzzle of accountability may go unsolved.
Eric Minor of local NBC affiliate WTOV — perhaps the most well sourced reporter covering the case, who reported Monday that an investigative grand jury selection "could take a while" — had first word of the civil suits: "Letters have been sent to at least some of the people who own the homes mentioned during the trial, possibly others ... to notify their homeowner insurance companies ... that they may be subject to a liability claim in civil court." Here's the full segment from over the weekend:
As Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said when he announced he was calling the grand jury after a juvenile court judge found Steubenville High football players Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond guilty last month, the secretive investigation will examine whether adults were criminally negligent or more charges should be filed. "The focus is to determine if any other laws were violated. We're going to file the evidence and see where it takes us. It may take us that there are no charges filed, or that there are charges filed," DeWine said this week, according to the Wheeling News-Register. "I would caution, however, that a grand jury does not make moral judgments, it makes legal judgments," DeWine added. "Bad behavior and bad judgment are not necessarily crimes."
While the grand jury process, which began in Steubenville Monday, might come back with everything or nothing, tort law experts seem to think any civil case against the parents of Steubenville party hosts could be equally confounding — if based on simliar facts, and potentially with overlapping answers. Ohio State University law professor Sarah Rudolph Cole told The Atlantic Wire Monday that the "bottom line is that you can be sued for these things, but liability will likely turn on whether it was foreseeable that a drunken minor would, more likely than not, cause physical harm to another person."
In an email exchange surrounding simple questions — whether or not you can be sued in Ohio for a rape that occurs in your home, or for the underage drinking that court evidence says led to it — Cole insisted that Steubenville party suits wouldn't be that clear cut: "Typically, an adult who provides alcohol to a minor owes a 'Duty of Care' to that minor. So the adult would have a duty of reasonable care to the drinker and likely, if it is foreseeable that the drinker might harm someone else, a duty to protect that person."
What was "foreseeable" was at the center of the controversial position taken by the defense in the original rape case — that the victim was sober enough from drinking at three parties on the night of August 11 to follow Mays from party-to-party and to send him a text message after the attacks. And so Cole, the Ohio State professor, said that any civil suit — much like the original rape case and the ongoing grand jury investigation — "turns on the facts." She continued:
With respect to sexual assault, it would be both a question of whether the adult had any responsibility to prevent the intentional tort of battery (typically, people are not responsible for the intentional torts of others) committed by the drinker. I think that unless the adult knew about the individual's violent propensities, he or she would not have a duty to prevent the assault.
With respect to drinking, Cole adds that courts have been more clear about providing minors with alcohol — though it remains unclear how sexual assault and drinking overlap in the case of adult responsibility:
The drinking question is a bit more likely to result in liability because courts view the dangers of giving alcohol to minors as well-known (although the danger we are talking about here is getting into a car accident or the type of injury that is likely to come from being drunk – not sure sexual assault would fall into that category). As you can imagine, it is hard to prevent assaults and batteries because it is hard to know who is likely to commit them (so, unless there is a special relationship between the adult and the minor or the adult knows of the violent propensities of a minor, liability seems unlikely).
While the grand jury's deliberations will remain top-secret and no civil suits appear to have been brought by the victim's family, rights groups, or anyone else, there are existing facts, and the homeowners where the three parties occurred that night, after a pre-season football game, are not secret — one family has a son who is an assistant coach at Steubenville High, while another insists they were unaware of the intoxicated state of the victim. Here, based on court proceedings that have not been widely reported, are the Steubenville residents who might be calling their insurance agents:
Party House No. 1: The Belardine Residence
According to witness testimony and court documents from the March trial and an October pre-trial hearing, this is where the only drinking of the night occurred, early on in the evening. One of the first witnesses at the rape trial, a friend of the victim from Weirton High in West Virginia, testified that the victim became visibly drunk at the Belardines's place — the home from where an intoxicated Jane Doe headed off into the night with Mays and Richmond. "The witness said she asked her friend to stop drinking, but the girl refused. When she tried to stop the teen from leaving with the two defendants, she said her friend pushed her way," reported the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.
The house belong to the the Belardines, and their 16-year-old daughter, Kamy, apparently hosted the party. Her 25-year-old brother, Matt is an assistant coach at Steubenville — one of 19 coaches for the dominant Big Red program — who had a pretty solid prep career as a wide receiver for Coach Reno Saccoccia and seems to have witnessed the first party of the night in some capacity. It's not a pretty picture: drunk underage football players, two of whom would eventually be convicted of rape, hanging out at their assistant football coach's family home — an assistant coach who is old enough to supply them with liquor.
According to the testimony, it is unclear who purchased the alcohol for the party or how it got there. Here is an account from Mark Cole, one of Mays's best friend who received an immunity deal and whose car and house would be the site of the attacks later, during the pre-trial hearing, in which he insists the partyers brought their own booze:
When pressed, Cole was reluctant to say how everyone got their alcohol — though it sure sounds like fake IDs might have been involved:
In this account, however, Cole says the alcohol was at the house when the boys arrived:
(Note: We've redacted the victim's name, as is customary for victims of sexual assault.)
According to a breakdown of testimony in The Toronto Star, at one point Matt Belardine, the assistant coach, had said things were getting "out of hand," and then he apparently kicked everyone out. That would seem to explain how the victim was separated from her friends, or at least how the night of partying continued on to other houses, apparently without alcohol but apparently with enough drunk teenagers for something very bad to happen out in the open. What remains unexplained is how much underage drinking Belardine may have witnessed, if any — or whether there is enough evidence for him to face a civil suit or more charges from the grand jury. The Belardines have not spoken publicly since the investigation began.
Party House No. 2: The Howarth Residence
After Matt Belardine kicked everyone out, a large portion of the teenage crowd moved parties to the nearby Howarth home. This is where the now infamous Instagram photo of the victim being dragged by her eventual attackers (at right) was taken, and where things escalated enough that the girl was on her way to being raped. (The viral video of a Steubenville athlete making fun of the victim would be filmed there later.)
Jake Howarth was a friend to some members of the football team, including Mays and Richmond, and his parents were some of the first Steubenville High parents directly involved in the case to speak out in public after the verdict. Marty Howarth told WTOV's Minor that the victim, Mays, and Richmond had showed up drunk and uninvited — and that the family had cooperated with the investigation. "We're not really concerned that we've done anything. I know that some people think that — we've gone over it and over it and over it again," Jake's father said. "You can always look back in hindsight and say should have, could have, but when you look at the situation as it unfolded that evening, I felt that our son acted rather responsibly with his friends based on his knowledge of the situation."
Now that the grand jury is doing just that — looking at the night in hindsight, to see, as DeWine said this week, "that nothing has been swept under the rug and everyone has their day in court" — the testimony about the party at the Howarths is back in the spotlight. The Howarths also released a lengthy statement to the media outlining their version of the events:
Though Jake may not have witnessed the attacks that occurred later that night, his house was the last destination before the victim was sexually assaulted — in the car and at the house of Mark Cole. The Howarth family insists that no drinking was taking place, but testimony from witnesses say that the girl was exhibiting signs of intoxication while slurring her words and vomiting in the Howarth bathroom — before, apparently, being asked to leave by his mother:
From their statement, it's clear the Howarth' are not fans of the attention that's been turned on them:
And they would like to see this turn into a way to talk about underage drinking and how "communications of those intentions are confused by consumption or intoxication":
For her part, the victim's version of the evening — the one that held up in court — is that of a girl who was raped while she was unconscious and unresponsive. And a judge said that there was no room to be "confused" about that.
Party House House No. 3: The Cole Residence
Mark Cole was a key witness — perhaps the key witness, not just for turning against his friends and teammates with that immunity deal, but because the attacks that night happened in his car and in his parents' basement. Legally speaking, those are the only two places where rape occurred at a football party on August 11 in Steubenville.
What we do know is that Cole, along with witnesses Evan Westlake and Anthony Craig, were all granted immunity during the trial, but there's no word on if that immunity affects Cole's parents. The Cole family have largely kept out of the media, but local blogs have suggested that Cole's parents were out of town, thus becoming the backup option as the partying continued.
DeWine, the attorney general, said after the first verdict was handed down last month that he didn't expect the three players with immunity to be charged unless his investigators found something particularly new. Among the potential charges the grand jury might find, he cited failure to report child abuse, tampering with evidence, and more. Cole deleted a video that may never see the light of day and his parents — like so many others in Steubenville and around the country — may end up looking for more answers about what could have gone right that evening than they may face punishment for what went so wrong.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.