STEUBENVILLE - Jefferson County Common Pleas Judge Joseph Bruzzese Jr. has asked the Ohio Supreme Court to appoint a visiting judge to preside over a special grand jury starting April 15 to determine if other crimes were committed in connection with the rape of a 16-year-old Weirton girl.
Bruzzese sent a letter to the judicial assignment officer of the Supreme Court citing, "substantial controversy surrounding this case provoked primarily by nameless bloggers making allegations of cover-up," as his reason for requesting a visiting judge.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced plans to convene the grand jury Sunday morning immediately after visiting Juvenile Judge Thomas Lipps found Trent Mays, 17, of Bloomingdale and Ma'Lik Richmond, 16, of Steubenville delinquent on rape charges in Jefferson County Juvenile Court.
"These nameless bloggers, while having produced no evidence of a cover-up, have managed to assemble quite a following locally, nationally and internationally. For this reason I believe no local officials should have anything to do with the grand jury proceedings proposed by the attorney general. It is therefore my request that the Supreme Court appoint some other judge, hopefully as far away as possible to preside over these proceedings," Bruzzese stated in his letter.
"In the event that any adults are indicted for any offense whether felony or misdemeanor it would be my suggestion that the Supreme Court be prepared to appoint out-of-town judges in those cases also," concluded Bruzzese.
Bret Crow of the Office of Public Information for the Supreme Court of Ohio said Wednesday the court is in contact with a judge for filling in as the presiding judge at the grand jury proceedings.
Jefferson County Prosecutor Jane Hanlin said Wednesday afternoon she will not be directly involved in the grand jury investigation.
"If asked, I will provide assistance to the attorney general's office. But this is a continuation of the investigation my office initiated last summer when the rape charges were originally filed. At that time I recused myself and asked for the attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor," Hanlin said.
"I have reached the conclusion that this investigation cannot be completed, that we cannot bring finality to this matter without the convening of a grand jury. I am asking the Jefferson County Common Pleas Court to convene a grand jury to meet on or about April 15. My prosecutors will present evidence to this grand jury for it to determine if other crimes have been committed," DeWine announced at his Sunday press conference at the Jefferson County Justice Center..
"As part of our investigation, BCI agents identified 43 individuals who attended at least one of the two parties. Investigators interviewed 27 of these individuals, while 16 refused to cooperate. A grand jury is an investigative tool that is uniquely suited to ensure fairness and to complete this investigation. And this community needs assurance that no stone has been left unturned in our search for the truth," DeWine stated.
He indicated a total of 56 interviews have been conducted, and specialists at Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation analyzed 13 phones containing 396,270 text messages, 308,586 photos or pictures, 940 video clips, 3,188 phone calls and 16,422 contacts listed in the cell phones.
"The convening of a grand jury does not necessarily mean that indictments will be returned or that charges will be filed. However, indictments could be returned, and charges could be filed," DeWine said.
Steubenville City School Superintendent Michael McVey said Wednesday he applauds the decision to convene a special grand jury "to make sure the investigation is complete and to determine whether additional charges should be filed in this case."
"We will respect the results of that process and if necessary will take appropriate action. From the beginning we have cooperated fully with this investigation and will continue to do so. To the best of our knowledge everyone associated with Steubenville City Schools - students and employees - have cooperated as we have encouraged them to do," McVey said in a prepared statement.
"As a school community it is time for us to move forward and focus our attention on the students in our classrooms. But as we do that we must learn everything we can from this case and try to figure out what if anything we can do differently so nothing like this ever happens again. We owe that to the victim, our students and our community," McVey said.
He also said he was grateful to the investigators and prosecutors who participated in the rape case and subsequent trial and supported the victim.
"We are also grateful to Judge Lipps for handling this case with great sensitivity and care making sure justice was served under very difficult circumstances. As the trial in juvenile court proceeded it was impossible not to ask what we might have done differently to prevent this horrible event from occurring," noted McVey.
Two female teenagers remain in the Jefferson County Juvenile Detention Center following a detention hearing Tuesday.
Both girls were charged Tuesday morning with a felony intimidation of a witness and aggravated menacing and telecommunication harassment, both misdemeanors after they allegedly tweeted threats to the 16-year-old rape victim.
An adjudication hearing for the two girls is scheduled Wednesday in juvenile court.
(Gossett can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)