What If Steubenville Had Been a Murder Trial?

How often do you read a news story about a crime that’s told from the criminal’s perspective?

Have you ever heard a report of a robbery, mugging, or murder that started with  an account of how the suspect, rather than the victim, found themselves in that situation?

No, that would be silly.

Except when we talk about rape. Reporters, even the ones who clearly condemn the crime, tend to tell the story from the perspective of the accused.

Is it simply lack of information about the victim? Or are we just more comfortable siding with the accused than with the victim?

When the crime is rape, the word “accused” is thrown around more often than usual. We don’t call accused rapists “suspects.”

As if we don’t suspect they did anything wrong at all. As if we suspect the victim’s accusations more than we suspect the accused.

CNN’s shocking coverage of the Steubenville rape trial has come under a lot of well-publicized scrutiny. I’ve written about this kind of coverage before, and I think it’s pretty clear why it’s unacceptable.

But, just for kicks, let’s do an experiment.

Let’s pretend that CNN was covering a similarly serious crime: murder.

I’ve altered the transcript from CNN’s controversial broadcast, replacing any mention of “rape” or sexual assault to “murder.”

I’ve cut short sections that allude to the victim still being alive, only where necessary to convey that these boys killed her instead of raped her.

My edits are in bold. You can watch the broadcast in the video above, or read the original transcript here.

I encourage you to try this substitution game on any media coverage about rape that you come across. I’m afraid you’ll find the results usually sound just as ridiculous as this:

Photo via The Guardian

Photo via The Guardian

Two star football players in Steubenville, Ohio, have been found guilty of murdering a West Virginia teenager. The story has attracted national attention. The judge just ruled a few minutes ago. Listen in.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JUDGE THOMAS LIPPS, HAMILTON COUNTY FAMILY COURT: In this case, you know, regarding the charges of murder, both defendants Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays are committed to the Department of Youth Services for a minimum of one year and a maximum period until you’re 21.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: Again, this case was played out in juvenile court, that is why there was a judge, no jury. He decided on the verdict, as well as, you heard there, talking about the sentence.

We want to go now to CNN’s Poppy Harlow. She is in Steubenville, and has been covering this trial.

I cannot imagine having just watched this on the feed coming in. How emotional that must have been sitting in the courtroom.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I’ve never experienced anything like it, Candy. It was incredibly emotional — incredibly difficult even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believe their life fell apart.

One of — one of the young men, Ma’lik Richmond, when that sentence came down, he collapsed. He collapsed in the arms of his attorney, Walter Madison. He said to me, “My life is over. No one is going to want me now.”

Very serious crime here. Both found guilty of murdering this 16- year-old girl at a party back in August, an alcohol-fueled party. Alcohol is a huge part in this.

But Trent Mays was also found guilty on a second count and that is of felony illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material because he took a photograph of the victim laying dead on the floor that night. Trent Mays will serve two years in a juvenile detention facility. Ma’lik Richmond will serve one year on that one count that he was found guilty for.

I want to let our viewers listen because for the first time in this entire trial we have now heard from the two young men. Trent Mays stood up, apologizing to the victim’s family in court. After him, Ma’lik Richmond.

Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRENT MAYS, FOUND GUILTY OF MURDER IN JUVENILE COURT: I would really like to apologize to (INAUDIBLE), her family, my family and community. No pictures should have been sent out or should be taken. That’s all. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Anything you’d like to say, Ma’lik?

MA’LIK RICHMOND, FOUND GUILTY OF MURDER IN JUVENILE COURT: I would like to apologize. I had no intention to do anything like that and I’m sorry to put you guys through this. (INAUDIBLE) I’m sorry.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: I was sitting about three feet from Ma’lik when he gave that statement. It was very difficult to watch.

You know, something that came up throughout this sentencing. Ma’lik’s father had gotten up and spoke. Ma’lik has been living with guardians. His father, a former alcoholic, gotten to a lot of trouble with the law, been in prison before.

And his father stood up and he told the court, “I feel responsible for this. I feel like I wasn’t there for my son.” And before that, he came over to the bench where his son was sitting. He approached him, he hugged him and whispered in his ear.

And Ma’lik’s attorney said to us in a courtroom, I have never heard Ma’lik’s father before say, I love you. He’s never told his son that. But he just did today.

This was an incredibly emotional day. These two juveniles being carried out and they will be committed today, Candy.

CROWLEY: Poppy Harlow in Steubenville, Ohio, for us.

I want to bring in Paul Callan, our CNN legal contributor.

You know, Paul, a 16-year-old now just sobbing in court, regardless of what big football players they are, still sound like 16 year olds. The other one, 17. A 16-year-old victim.

The thing is, when you listen to it and you realize that they could stay until they’re 21, they are going to get credit for time served. What’s the lasting effect, though, on two young men being found guilty in juvenile court of murder , essentially?

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, you know, Candy, we’ve seen here a courtroom drenched in tears and tragedy and, you know, Poppy’s description, I think, you know, sums it all up. But across America scenes like this happen all the time.

Photo via CBS

Photo via CBS

I know as a prosecutor and defense attorney, when that verdict is handed down, usually it’s just the family and families of the defendants and the victims, there’s always that moment of just lives are destroyed. And lives have already been destroyed by the crime. And we got a chance to see that.

But in terms of what happens now, yes, the most severe thing with these young men is being labeled as murderers.

[…]

That will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Employers, when looking up their background, will see they’re murderers. When they move into a new neighborhood and somebody goes on the Internet where these things are posted. Neighbors will know they’re a murderer.

It’s really something that will have a lasting impact. Much more of a lasting impact than going to a juvenile facility for one or two years.

CROWLEY: Paul, thanks. I want to bring Poppy back in — because, Poppy, there’s — you know, the 16-year-old victim, her life, never the same, again. And I understand you have been talking to some of the families involved.

HARLOW: Her life is over. Absolutely, Candy.

[…]

But I want to tell our viewers about a statement that her mother just made, just made in the court after the sentencing. Her mother just said that she has pity on the two young boys that did this. She said human compassion is not taught by teachers or coaches. It’s a God-given gift, saying that you displayed a lack of compassion, a lack of moral code, saying that you were your own accuser throughout this for posting about this all over social media. And she said she takes pity on them.

As far as her daughter, she said she will persevere, she will get through this. But the words of an angry mother who now has a sentence, that I believe she would consider or a verdict, just — Candy.

CROWLEY: CNN’s Poppy Harlow, thank you. Also to our legal contributor Paul Callan.

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