The story is a passage in our cultural diary yet one that seems faded from our collective memory.
A boy of seven or so harmlessly steals two pieces of candy from a local soda shop. Walking out the father notices his son’s illicit spoils and taking advantage of the parenting moment walks the child back inside and stands behind the boy as he confesses his sin to the owner and faces whatever consequences await.
The Internet is abuzz after the ruling of the headline centered rape case of two Steubenville Ohio high school football players — Trent Mays, 17, and Ma’lik Richmond, 16. The victim a 16-year-old West Virginia girl who in August 2012 made the six-mile trip across state lines from her home in Weirton for a night of partying in the depressed steel town of 18,000 that sits on the banks of the Ohio River.
The trial concluded after five days with Judge Thomas Lipp’s guilty verdict ending any football careers and sentencing each to juvenile detention in addition to psychiatric treatment topped off with a caution to teenagers everywhere, “watch what you record”.
This warning was in response to the proverbial smoking gun in the case, namely hundreds of text messages, pictures, and video of the assault and the defendants boasting on it afterwards most of which was posted to social media sites for likes and comments as a virtual shrine to the duo’s perversion.
The defense’s case, in light of such damning evidence, relied on two arguments. The first was questioning the girl’s level of intoxication that night and particularly how she was sober enough to know what she was doing. The second was attacking her character and reputation. What seemed so lost on the mainstream media was how these highlight reel rapists chose – above all things – to dispute the victim’s capacity to recognize right from wrong as the means for their way out.
The legal and ethical nuances of this case will be chewed on for weeks, OpEd pieces will zing from keyboards criticizing the general teenage mindset, the limits of high school sports, and renewed calls to end rape through the reminder that ‘no’ is never predicated on the number of shots consumed. While these are legitimate concerns as I look at this from the perspective of a father there is one topic arguably more troubling that will get scant if any attention.
The mountain of evidence presented in the case was incontrovertible – of that there is no debate. This was made abundantly clear by counsel’s chosen defense strategy. And Mays and Richmond couldn’t have dug a deeper hole for themselves had they tried, if texts and photos weren’t sufficient, videos surfaced on YouTube of the teens bragging openly about their raping skills. Trent Mays effectively scripted the prosecution’s closing arguments.
The end result in all this is that no one could sincerely claim ignorance at what took place that night – and this is especially so for the boys’ parents. Well before the trial ever began the attorneys, the teenage defendants and their parents knew exactly the monumental task awaiting them. All were in full awareness of what transpired and the depravity that it entailed. And it’s with that very real understanding that I find the most difficulty.
These boys didn’t retain their own counsel; they were sophomore football stars believing themselves untouchable and one need look no further for the basis of this god-like conviction than the following fact – even when faced with such indisputable evidence including footage of Mays looking impudently into the camera and pompously boasting how that ‘dead girl’ was ‘so raped’ these parents chose to deny reality, shut their eye’s to the truth, ignore the genuine character of their children and instead move heaven and earth in an effort to have them acquitted. And the fact is that doing so these parents knowingly justified for their sons’ behavior.
Like many parents, when my children were younger we would make afternoon trips to the park where my son would magnetically make his way over to the kid with the most and biggest toys. And within minutes I would find myself rebuking him for jerking a shovel or Tonka Truck out of the other child’s hands. The consequence for this behavior was swift and sure beginning with handing the toy back and then apologizing for the deed. It would be the first in what has been a lifelong effort to teach both my children what I consider the most significant responsibility I have as a parent – distinguishing right from wrong by demonstrating how actions bring consequences.
But how can I effectively teach these vital life lessons if I eliminate the future deterrents by helping my children escape the immediate consequences? What would my son learn about sharing if instead of demanding the apology and the return of the toy – or those pieces of candy – the actions were ignored or even worse defended? And how different is that from what these parents did by disregarding the truth, encouraging the boys to plead innocent, and then hiring attorneys to defend them?
I think it’s always a healthy exercise, as parents, to look at these kinds of situations and ask ourselves what we would do? When I stop to consider what actually took place and the cavalier attitude these boys demonstrated, I can’t help but think that had this been my son I could not warrant hiring counsel to defend him. I could not in good conscious justify the action by helping him escape the consequence. In light of such blatant disregard for another person I would have demanded that my son accept responsibility and suffer the necessary repercussions. And the truth of the matter is that was exactly the thing these parents ought to have done. Just imagine for a moment the message sent had they been found innocent?
As parents we are called to support our children but that should never be at the cost of our own ethics and character. It should never require us to turn a blind eye to the truth. And it’s in such very real circumstance that parenting becomes a very long, hard, lonely road because to follow our principles will likely require us to look beyond our own parental emotions and the opinion of the larger society in order to do what’s best – in the long run – for our children. And that will require some very heart wrenching decisions, which for these parents would have meant doing little more than offering their love and support and standing behind their sons while they face whatever consequences await.