Judge must ensure rape trial is fair

Judge Thomas Lipps was right to order the trial of two Jefferson County teenagers accused of raping a girl be open to the press and public and be held in Steubenville. Too many questions have been raised about whether justice is being done in the case for the proceedings to be held behind closed doors.

But some of the attorneys involved in the case have brought up valid concerns about potential harassment of witnesses. That is an issue that may concern the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department and Steubenville police.

Lipps, a visiting judge who will hear the two Steubenville High School students’ cases himself, without a jury, heard arguments last week about closing the trial and moving to another venue. His decision to allow the press and public to attend the trial, now set for March 13, will make it more difficult for critics to claim some sort of cover-up is occurring.

Another request the judge denied was to hold the trial at another location. He rejected that suggestion, too, even after being told some potential witnesses already have been harassed.

One attorney said holding the trial elsewhere might make it easier to control protesters expected to attend the proceedings. “My concern is that witnesses aren’t going to come in walking past hundreds of people wearing masks,” the lawyer explained.

Again, that certainly is a reasonable concern, given events during the past few months.

The First Amendment ensures every American has the right to speak his mind – but the Constitution also contains provisions intended to ensure those accused of crimes receive fair trials. Intimidation of witnesses can make that impossible.

So, Lipps should make it clear anyone attempting – whether outside the courthouse or by any other method – to intimidate witnesses will be held accountable. It will be up to the sheriff’s and police departments to enforce that, walking a potentially fine line between curbing free speech and protecting the rights of the accused. Anyone caught attempting blatantly to sway testimony in the case should be arrested.