Rarely do rapists evoke such sympathy.
After two teenagers were convicted on Sunday of raping a young girl in Steubenville, Ohio, a CNN correspondent lamented that it was “incredibly emotional, incredibly difficult” to watch the court proceedings. Only she wasn’t referring to the victim, or even to the crime, but to the “two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students,” who “literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart.”
On the screen as correspondent Poppy Harlow spoke was the headline, “Two high school football stars found guilty.” Not, as some critics have pointed out, “Two rapists found guilty.”
Harlow’s comments and the rest of the segment have ignited a whole new firestorm in an already sensational case that has garnered international attention and the ire of vindictive hackers, while creating a deep divide in the battered steel town of Steubenville.
Less than 24 hours after the verdict, the focus has shifted, sharply, from the contents of the five-day trial to the coverage of it and the reaction from some to its conclusion. (CNN didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.) Harlow may have come across as sympathetic to the convicted rapists, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, but others made no attempt to hide that they disagreed with the verdict.
Responses like this have horrified people across the country. By Monday morning, the largest of three petitions on Change.org demanding an apology from CNN for its “disgusting” coverage had collected more than 30,000 signatures.
“The criminals were almost becoming the victims,” said John Szarowski of Corinna, Maine, who started a similar petition on Change.org. “Now their lives were destroyed. There was no mention at all of their victim, and the life they destroyed.”
Harlow’s report was part of a six-minute segment that mentioned the victim only in passing. After her opening statement, the reporter went on to recount the dramatic blow-by-blow of what happened next, as she sat three feet away. “It was very difficult to watch,” Harlow said. “Ma’lik’s father got up and spoke. Ma’lik has been living with guardians, and his father, a former alcoholic, has gotten in a lot of trouble with the law. He stood up and told the court ‘I feel responsible. I feel like I wasn’t there for my son.’ He came over to where his son was sitting, he approached him, hugged him, whispered in his ear. Ma’lik’s attorney said to us ‘I have never heard him tell his son ‘I love you.’ But he just did today.’ This was an incredibly emotional day.”
Host Candy Crowley nodded sympathetically. “Regardless of what big football players they are, they still sound like 16-year-olds,” she said.
The victim’s mother, Harlow pointed out, made a statement after the sentencing, saying she had “pity for you both.”
Twitter exploded with displeasure.
Rachel Dissell covered the trial for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She was in the courtroom when the verdict was read, and she backed up Harlow’s description of the scene as an emotional one. “They didn’t get that part wrong,” Dissell told The Daily Beast. She says she can also understand the network keying off of the footage it had to work with. “If they had video of the victim crying, they would have keyed in on that.” But still, Dissell found the CNN segment surprising. “After watching all of that testimony, [it looked like] they’ve come to the conclusion it was just these boys who had their lives ruined.”
Richmond’s attorney, Walter Madison, defended the network’s handling of the verdict.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the courtroom,” Madison told The Daily Beast. “I think what really tapped into people's emotions is the fact that they sat in the trial for those five excruciating days, that their inherent sense of equity and proportion was off. They didn’t hear Ma’lik Richmond’s name very much.”
Madison did not expect a guilty verdict, he said.
“We didn’t prepare a statement from Ma’lik. We were not prepared for what we heard, just because of the lack of evidence we felt was against him,” Madison said.
And yet, even when that verdict was read, Richmond got up, walked over to the family in the courtroom and apologized, “under such stress and emotion which would not have given him an opportunity to reflect. What you saw was his first instinct, even when his life and his liberty was in jeopardy. His first instinct was to show compassion for somebody else. Either he’s a hell of an actor, or he was sincere. I think everybody in that courtroom who shed a tear, every news reporter, not just CNN … CNN, God bless them for having the courage to report what they saw. That was part of the day. They didn’t make it up.”
They didn’t make it up, but Harlow made a choice other news outlets didn’t. ABC News’ coverage from Alex Perez in Steubenville did mention Mays and Richmond crying in court, but only after noting that prosecutors might bring more charges against others who failed to report the rape. And after describing “tears of pain streaming from both sides,” Perez pivoted to “emotion and compassion prosecutors say Mays and Richmond should have shown before.”