Tom Lipps was a judge in Hamilton County (Ohio) Juvenile Court in this 2007 file photo. Now, he's the judge in the middle of the controversial Steubenville, Ohio, rape case. (Gannett, Leigh Taylor/The Cincinnati Enquirer/File)
(Photo: Leigh Taylor, The Cincinnati Enquirer/File)
CINCINNATI -- A rape case in Steubenville, Ohio, has split this city, drawn international attention, become a social media sensation, and this week drew a crowd of protesters in Guy Fawkes masks.
And now, a retired judge from Delhi Township, Ohio, is at the center of the case.
Tom Lipps, a retired Hamilton County Juvenile Court judge, is presiding over the Steubenville rape case where two 16-year-old players on the tight-knit city's football team are accused of abducting and raping an apparently drunk 16-year-old girl.
That August incident resulted in criminal charges against the football players, with the local judge and prosecutor stepping down from the case because of their close connection to those involved in the case or potential conflicts of interest.
The case may be moved from Steubenville -- with Cincinnati as one of many possible sites -- because witnesses are worried about their safety and reputations.
Attorneys for the two charged teens suggested Tuesday that the Feb. 13 trial may have to be moved. It possibly could be moved to southwest Ohio because Lipps lives there. With a population of about 18,000, Steubenville is more than 250 miles and four hours east of Cincinnati, located almost equidistant between Pittsburgh and Wheeling, W. Va.
The Ohio Supreme Court doesn't keep statistics on change of venues, a spokesman said Tuesday. State law offers little guidance on where or how far a criminal trial can be moved.
Lipps retired in 2010 after 12 years as a Hamilton County Juvenile Court judge and 25 more in that court as an administrator and magistrate. After his retirement, Lipps was named a visiting judge by the Ohio Supreme Court, allowing him to be appointed in any Ohio county. His strong background in juvenile court made him a good candidate to preside over the case. The teens are charged as juveniles.
"I'm pleased to hear that he's in the middle of that firestorm. He'll make sure justice is done," said Alex Triantafilou, an attorney and president of the Hamilton County Republican Party. Lipps wouldn't comment Tuesday.
"Tom is the quintessential judge," said Sylvia Hendon. She currently is a judge with the Cincinnati-based Ohio 1st District Court of Appeals, but served as a Hamilton County Juvenile Court judge with Lipps for eight years.
"There is nobody is the State of Ohio, and I mean including the legislators who wrote them, who knows the Juvenile Court laws better than Tom Lipps."
Before spending 17 years as a Juvenile Court administrator and magistrate, Lipps was a probation officer. He was appointed judge in 1998. Lipps has already refused a request to close the Steubenville proceedings from the public.
According to reports, the 16-year-old girl from a West Virginia town just across the river from Steubenville was taken to Steubenville and later seen in photos, apparently drunk, being carried by smiling teen males by her arms and legs.
Since the judge and prosecutor in Jefferson County, home to Steubenville, have stepped down, Ohio's Attorney General's office is prosecuting the case.
Public interest in the case increased with the circulation online last week of an unverified video that purportedly shows a young man joking about the 16-year-old girl. The video apparently was released by hackers who allege more people were involved and should be held accountable.
In the last week, demonstrations have called for the case to be properly prosecuted despite the football-crazed city's high school team's players being accused.
The demonstrators wore Guy Fawkes masks, which were recently made popular when they were worn by the main character in the movie "V for Vendetta."
Kimball Perry, The Cincinnati Enquirer