Activists from the online group KnightSec and Anonymous protest Saturday at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Steubenville, Ohio.
(Photo: Michael D. McElwain, AP)
Former guardians of a high school football player facing rape charges in Steubenville, Ohio, say the young man isn't capable of such a crime and deserves to be tried in court and not by the social media firestorm surrounding the case.
Greg Agresta and his wife, Jennifer, took in the boy, whom USA TODAY is not naming because he is a juvenile, for two years when he was 8 years old. Agresta said the boy's mother had "personal issues" and his father was "unavailable."
He is one of two 16-year-old boys accused of raping a 16-year-old girl in August. Both suspects deny the charges and remain on house arrest.
"It's not his personality to behave the way they are accusing him of," Jennifer Agresta told USA TODAY on Tuesday, adding that the young man is back living with her family. "It's an awful situation, and I just wish people wouldn't be judgmental. In my heart, I believe he's innocent."
The trial is set for next month in Steubenville, about 150 miles east of Columbus. The case has attracted national media attention and has been the subject of dozens of social media posts.
Public interest in the case increased with circulation online last week of an unverified video, more than 12 minutes long, that purportedly shows another young man joking about the accuser. The video apparently was released by hackers who allege more people were involved and should be held accountable.
A photo of the two accused boys holding the hands and feet of their accuser has also been circulated as evidence that the girl was unconscious at the time of the sexual encounter. Walter Madison, a lawyer who is representing the boy Agresta helped raise, says everything that happened that night was consensual and no force was involved.
"It's one minute in time," said Jennifer Agresta, when asked about the photo. "We have no idea what was going on in the photo."
Agresta, a 42-year-old teacher said, "The video is horrible. However, the video has nothing to do with the photo."
Greg Agresta, 55, a senior vice president of a bank, said he first met the boy while he was coaching a Steubenville football team for "underprivileged and at-risk youth."
After getting to know the boy, he and his wife offered to take him into their home as legal guardians while his family worked out some issues. The arrangement lasted two years, but the boy continued to be part of their family after he returned to his biological family.
"When we heard about the rape allegations, we were disappointed and very shocked," Greg Agresta said. "He's a very docile individual. He's a gentlemen. He's very soft-spoken. He's not an aggressive young man."
Amid all the talk in the news and social media, Greg Agresta said he fears the young man is being found guilty in the court of public opinion.
"Kids make mistakes," he said. "I wasn't there, but (he) is a good person. I'm not claiming he's innocent. I'm just saying give the kid a chance. Embrace the legal system. The truth will come out for better or worse."
As the young man waits for the trial to begin, he has gotten into a routine of going from the Agresta home to a juvenile detention facility and back. He takes classes online, plays video games, goes to church on Sundays and avoids any talk of the case online, the Agrestas said.
"He's very distraught," Agresta said. "He knows the magnitude of the situation, and he's very troubled by it."
Madison said he plans to request the trial be moved away from Steubenville.
The atmosphere of the city is inappropriate for the trial, he said, citing a social media shooting threat that caused Steubenville schools to go on lockdown Tuesday.
"As the case stands now, it's gotten completely out of control," Madison said. "Misconceptions are so widely blown out of portion that this has become a fiasco."
Yamiche Alcindor, USA TODAY