Five years ago, a 16-year-old girl was raped in Steubenville, Ohio. On Monday, a judge in Steubenville was shot outside his courthouse, and authorities say the shooter is the father of one of the young men convicted in the 2012 crime.
Judge Joseph J. Bruzzese Jr. was shot on Monday morning outside the Jefferson County Courthouse, according to the Washington Post. The judge, who was carrying a gun, returned fire, as did a probation officer, and the shooter was killed. He was identified as Nathaniel Richmond, the father of Ma’lik Richmond, a Steubenville High School football player who was convicted of rape in the 2012 case.
Bruzzese, who is hospitalized in stable condition, wasn’t involved in the rape case. But the shooting by Nathaniel Richmond has refocused attention on his son’s crime, which occupies a crucial place in the history of Americans’ understanding of sexual assault.
The Steubenville case changed how Americans talk about rape
In August 2012, a girl from West Virginia went to a party in Steubenville with some football players from Steubenville High School. Later, as Ariel Levy reports in a detailed account of the case in the New Yorker, several boys who had been at the party made statements on social media that led her family to believe she had been raped. One boy tweeted, “If they’re getting ‘raped’ and don’t resist then to me it’s not rape. I feel bad for her but still.” Another recorded a video in which he laughed and joked about the rape with other kids. A third posted an Instagram photograph of the girl, apparently passed out, being carried by Ma’lik Richmond and another football player, Trent Mays.
Disturbed by such social media posts, the girl’s family contacted police. In 2013, Richmond and Mays were both convicted of rape in juvenile court; Mays was also convicted of possession of a nude photo of a minor. Richmond was sentenced to a minimum of a year in juvenile detention and was released in 2014; Mays got two years.
The Steubenville case captured enormous public attention for a couple of reasons. First, it came at a time when sexual assault, especially at schools and especially by athletes, was starting to get increased scrutiny. In 2011, the Obama administration issued a now-famous “Dear Colleague” letter, advising colleges and secondary schools that federal law — specifically Title IX — requires them to investigate and prosecute sexual assault. Know Your IX, an organization that works to end sexual and intimate partner violence at schools, was founded in 2013. Throughout the early 2010s, feminist and mainstream media carried a variety of stories of student athletes accused of sexual assault — in one case, a student at St. Mary’s College killed herself 10 days after she was allegedly assaulted by a Notre Dame football player.
The Steubenville rape also got a lot of attention because its social media paper trail — something more common now than it was then — allowed people around the country to get involved. According to Levy, details of the case were first publicized by a Columbus-based blogger, who reposted tweets and Facebook posts about the rape on her blog, Prinniefied. Later, the case got the attention of Anonymous, which threatened to dox the perpetrators. In January 2013, more than 1,000 people attended a rally on the steps of Jefferson County Courthouse, demanding that the perpetrators face justice.
In essence, the Steubenville trial brought out into the open something far too many women and girls around the country had experienced but didn’t have a platform to talk about publicly. At the courthouse rally, several survivors of sexual assault spoke. “My name is Kaylee, and at the age of 14 I was raped by a tall football player that I had a crush on,” said one, according to Levy. For a lot of Americans who had never even heard of Steubenville before 2012, the case became personal.
Many were angry when media coverage seemed to focus more on the perpetrators than on the girl they had raped. Poppy Harlow at CNN drew outrage when she expressed sympathy for “these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students.” What about the 16-year-old girl who was attacked, many people wondered. What about her future?
“It's perfectly understandable, when reporting on a rape trial, to discuss the length and severity of the sentence; it is less understandable to discuss the end of two convicted rapists' future athletic and academic careers as if it were somehow divorced from the laws of cause and effect,” Mallory Ortberg wrote at Gawker in 2013. “Their dreams and hopes were not crushed by an impersonal, inexorable legal system; Mays and Richmond raped a girl and have been sentenced accordingly.”
In the years after the verdict, focus on Steubenville died down, but the case had a lasting effect on the public conversation around sexual assault. According to Tracy Clark-Flory at Refinery29, the widespread discussion of the Steubenville case made many Americans aware of what activists and survivors have long known: that a rapist is more often an acquaintance than “a stranger lurking in the shadows,” and that blaming the victim is harmful and wrong. While more progress is needed, discussion of the cultural forces that protect rapists and punish survivors is common today, and Steubenville is part of the reason for that.
Ma’lik Richmond’s father had a history of crime and incarceration
Nathaniel Richmond already had a criminal record when his son went on trial: He was found guilty of attempted murder and incarcerated for five years when Ma’lik was a child. Ma’lik’s lawyer told Levy that his father’s absence was hard on Ma’lik and that he began “acting out”; football served as an outlet for his feelings.
According to the Washington Post, authorities don’t think the rape case had anything to do with the shooting on Monday. But according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Richmond had been involved in several cases before Judge Bruzzese, including a wrongful death lawsuit Richmond filed alleging that the Jefferson Metropolitan Housing Authority was responsible for the death of his mother in a 2015 fire. A hearing had been scheduled in that case for August 28.
It’s not clear whether the probation officer or Bruzzese delivered the shot that killed Richmond. Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla told the Post-Gazette he had advised the judge to start carrying a gun years ago because there are “nutcases out there who want retaliation.” He said the judge was an “avid sportsman. Hunter. Loves guns.”
The Steubenville case contributed to a growing awareness among Americans that a rape is not an isolated act but part of a larger cultural, political, and personal history. Now, years after the fact, the history of Steubenville has a new and disturbing chapter.