South Kingstown is a small town, population just over 30,000, at the southern tip of Rhode Island. It has two public high schools, one hospital, and no mayor. Many of its residents have lived there for their entire lives. “Instead of six degrees of separation here, it’s two or three degrees of separation,” one resident said recently.
So last month's arrest of four teenagers for an alleged violent sexual assault hit the community like a bomb.
On March 13, police announced that three high school students and a freshman at Southern New Hampshire University had been arrested and charged with raping a 19-year-old woman and videotaping the assault. Three of the alleged assailants were 18 or 19; one was just 16. All four were Black. The victim was white.
Three of the defendants have been held without bail since their arrest over a month ago. (The 16-year-old was released earlier this month after the state dropped its opposition to bail.) Along with the charges, the police released the full names, mugshots, and addresses of the teens, which were quickly broadcast across local and national news outlets. Residents said they were shocked to find the name of their small town on the front page of the state’s largest newspaper, the Providence Journal.
Since then, the case has been the subject of court hearings and candlelight vigils, whispered phone calls and public Facebook debates. Without warning, the tiny town has become a battleground for two of the year’s most controversial issues: racial inequalities in the justice system and the treatment of sexual assault survivors. And the debate, one resident said, is “creating a fracture, a split and a divide down the community”—largely upon racial lines.
The case itself is complicated, an issue not of forcible assault but of incapacitation. Despite the fact that prosecutors in this case have video evidence, it has still come down to a he-said, she-said: the victim says she was too intoxicated to consent; the defendants’ lawyers say she was not.
At a bail hearing on Monday, the victim, a 19-year-old recent high school graduate, said she was certain that a crime had been committed and was willing to endure scrutiny of her life to ensure the defendants were not freed pending trial.
“Because I want justice for myself and I want these boys to be held without bail,” she said, according to the Journal. “The only way I can stand up for myself is to testify.”
At an earlier hearing, the young woman gave the court her version of events. She said that she reconnected with Trenton Scuncio, a former classmate one grade below her, a week or so before the alleged assault. The two became intimate, she said, and met up several times before to smoke, drink, and have sex. On one occasion, she said, Scuncio’s cousin, Montrell Wilson, also participated.
On the night in question, the three teenagers and another friend, Jah-qwin Sekator, met up in the basement of Scuncio’s grandmother’s house. They quickly began taking shots out of two bottles of Hennessy, which the victim documented on Snapchat around 8 p.m. It was one of the last things she says she remembers from that night.
According to her court testimony, the victim quickly became blackout drunk, coming in and out of consciousness only enough to notice that she was completely naked and being filmed. When she finally came to, she said, she realized that a fourth person had joined the group, but had no memory of what had happened in the hours before. In a video taken around that time, she asks to check her makeup, only to realize it is no longer there. (Attorneys for the defendants declined to comment.)
The victim’s life in the years leading up to this had been difficult. She told the court she had been essentially homeless for the past year, bouncing between relatives’ and boyfriends’ houses and subsisting on one meal a day after her parents kicked her out. She struggled with severe alcoholism and regularly abused marijuana, acid, mushrooms, and Adderall. (One video from the night in question shows her turning down an offer of another shot, saying she’s going to throw up. “I was clearly heavily under the influence if I was cutting myself off,” she told Assistant Attorney General Mark Trovato.)
In the days following the incident, she returned to Scuncio’s house multiple times—only because, she said, “I had no self-respect.” The men provided her with alcohol, a bed to sleep in, food to eat. She asked for the videos of the night of the alleged assault, which the men provided, but couldn’t bring herself to watch them all. She never thought about filing a police report, she said, because “I believed it was my fault, and I felt bad.”
But a week later, finding herself physically trembling from alcohol withdrawal, she knew she needed help. She went to her parents’ house, then admitted herself to the local hospital to detox. That was where state police found her and informed her that someone had filed a report about the incident.
The four suspects were arrested days later. Although three had no criminal record (Sekator was charged with larceny and third-degree sexual assault earlier this year; he has pleaded not guilty,) prosecutors were adamant that the three adult defendants not receive bail. In a hearing, State Police Detective Ruth Hernandez said the videos “explicitly display the sexual assault of the victim,” whom she described as “ physically helpless,” “in and out of consciousness,” and “resisting the acts.”
But some community members said the case was not so cut and dry. Some questioned the veracity of the allegations; others felt it was simply unreasonable to hold three teenagers without bail. Attorneys for the defendants submitted testimony from friends and family members, detailing their deep ties to the community, lack of criminal history, and various scholastic accolades. A group called South Kingstown Care & Justice started raising money for their legal defense, which it estimated would cost up to $40,000 per person.
Marcus Robinson, a lifelong resident of the area and prominent local activist, told The Daily Beast he worried the teens had already been convicted in the court of public opinion. He said he sympathized with the woman, but could not stand by and watch the defendants—whom he knew personally—be branded criminals before all the facts were heard.
“If they’re found not guilty of this crime, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Will they be able to go to the local grocery store and get a job, when the [manager] has seen them on TV, has seen them in the newspaper, has heard these accusations against them?”
“People now know these kids as the accused,” he added. “They don’t know them as the brother, the cousin, the uncle. They don’t know them as the family men who have pets, who love their parents, who play sports and play video games... They’re just known as criminals.”
On April 13, the day of the first bail hearing and more than a month after their arrest, South Kingstown Care & Justice organized a vigil in support of the defendants. Organizers called for a fair and just trial, and asked the community not to render a verdict until it was over. A crowd of 50 or so joined, carrying signs reading “innocent until proven guilty” and “bring them home.”
One of the participants was Sarah Markey, a member of the school committee. Markey told The Daily Beast she is a survivor of sexual assault herself, and thought long and hard about whether or not to speak at the vigil. She eventually decided to speak out because of her frustration with the state’s opposition to bail.
“I just kept asking myself, ‘If I really believe that Black lives matter, what does that mean in this situation?’” she said. “And if I do believe that Black lives matter, I can’t just turn my back on black youth that are now thrown into a criminal justice system that doesn't work for Black people.”
But some women, watching the debate play out, were troubled. Liz Gledhill, the chair of the Rhode Island Democratic Women's Caucus, was especially upset by the bail hearings, where defense attorneys and prosecutors alike interrogated the teenage victim about her sexual history, drug use, and homelessness. The questioning struck Gledhill as classic victim-blaming—something that, as a survivor of sexual assault herself, hit especially hard.
Between the grueling court process and the vigil in support of the defendants, she said, “it feels like there's nobody in the victim’s corner in this case.”
“What isn't being talked about enough, I think, is the damage we do to women in general when we talk about sexual assault,” she said. “We always put blame on the woman: What was she wearing? Was she promiscuous? Did she have a reputation already?”
"It doesn't matter what kind of person you are,” she added, “you don't deserve to be raped.”
Jessica Rose, a town council member, said the debate had even reached her daughter at South Kingstown High School, where Rose said the 16-year-old felt uncomfortable with the way her classmates had rallied behind the defendants. Another friend had called her that morning to say that her third-grader’s classmate was telling everyone that his cousin was arrested for being Black.
“Now she has to have that whole conversation with her 8-year-old-son that there's more to the story,” said Rose, who noted that her comments reflected her personal opinion, not those of the council. “How do you talk about that story with an 8-year-old?”
The community of South Kingstown is not unfamiliar with sexual assault—it is, after all, a college town—nor is it immune to debates over racial inequity. (The high school’s mascot, the Rebels, is a source of tension because of its association with the Confederate army.) But the intersection of the two issues, at a moment when both have taken on increased national importance, has been draining. Multiple people interviewed for this story said they expected to lose friends over the issue.
“You have people who are saying, ‘How could you support these boys knowing they did that?’ and then you have people dragging the young lady,” Robinson said. “You have both sides of the story, but they're going at each other's necks instead of being cordial and speaking peacefully about it to each other.”
And the debate, according to residents both Black and white, has been largely drawn around racial lines. White people think the boys were guilty, or at least deserve to be held without bail, while people of color largely believe they should be released.
Robinson spoke to the issue from his experience growing up as a Black man in South Kingstown—a place where he said police over-patrolled minority, low-income neighborhoods and let wealthy white residents do as they pleased. He was pulled over by police the very first day he got his driver’s license, he claimed, and another four or five times that same year.
Asked whether this case represented what it was like to be Black in Kingstown, he responded: “It's not just Kingstown. It’s Rhode Island. It’s our country. These Black youths are targeted, they're looked at as a weapon because of the color of their skin.”
But many of the women in town spoke to their own experience with sexual assault, and how it felt seeing another victim at the center of such a heated debate. Rose, the town council member, did not say she was a survivor, but said she feared this incident would stop others from speaking up.
“[The victim’s] mental health has been put out there for everyone, her sexual history has been put out there for everyone,” she said. “My biggest fear is that in a college town, young women are not going to come forward now. It’s already a problem, and now fewer women are going to feel comfortable coming forward.”
The debate is nowhere near over. Bail hearings in the case have lasted over four days, and are set to continue later this week. Next, the case will go to a grand jury and, if the defendants are indicted, on to a criminal trial.
Markey, the school committee member, said she hopes the town can think of a better way to handle the issue before then.
“Something happened that night, none of us were there, and harm was caused,” she said. “And I just think that instead of turning away from all of this or launching accusations, as a community we should just step into this uncomfortable space and figure out how to provide love, support and healing for all these young people who are involved.”