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Ex-guardians support Ohio rape suspect 'whatever may happen'

Jennifer and Greg Agresta, former guardians of Steubenville, Ohio high school football star Ma'lik Richmond, who has been accused of raping a teenage girl, told TODAY's Matt Lauer, "we support him." NBC's Ron Allen reports on the case.

The former legal guardians of a teenage rape suspect in eastern Ohio said Tuesday on TODAY that they have not spoken to him about the alleged incident, but support him regardless of what occurred.

Greg and Jennifer Agresta, the former legal guardians of 16-year-old suspect Ma’lik Richmond, spoke to Matt Lauer on TODAY Tuesday alongside Richmond’s attorney, Walter Madison. Richmond and fellow Steubenville High School sophomore football player Trent Mays, 16, were charged with raping a 16-year-old girl on the night of Aug. 11 after photos and video from the alleged incident were posted on social media. The trial is set to start next month, and both defendants have pleaded not guilty.

The Agrestas became Richmond’s legal guardians when he was 8 years old and played on a youth football team coached by Greg Agresta. Richmond lived in a troubled home and his parents could not take care of him, so the Agrestas took him in for two years before he returned to his biological parents. Richmond is currently on house arrest and is living in the Agrestas’ home, but the couple said they have not asked him specifically about what happened on the night in question.

“It doesn’t matter to us,’’ Jennifer Agresta said. “We love him regardless of what happened that evening. We want him to know that we support him. When he left our home as a young child, the last thing I said to him when I dropped him off was, ‘Ma’lik, if you ever need anything, good or bad, we are a phone call away.’ When he called us…we had to be there for him.’’

“He knows we love him dearly,’’ Greg Agresta said. “He knows that if he’s convicted and if he’s found guilty, whatever may happen, we love him and support him.’’

'Everybody was surprised'
The Agrestas described Ma’lik as a “laid-back kid,’’ so the charges were stunning to them. Prosecutors have said that Mays and Richmond treated the victim “like a toy’’ while the group was party-hopping and drinking heavily that night. Mays allegedly attacked her in the back of a car while a friend took pictures that were later deleted, and later that night both players attacked her while she was passed out in a basement, according to prosecutors. The defense for both players claims that everything that happened was consensual.

“I think everybody was surprised,’’ Jennifer Agresta said. “It’s out of character for Ma’lik. I think everybody was in shock.’’

“I was very disappointed in the judgment that (was) allegedly exercised at that point in time,’’ Greg Agresta said. “It’s completely out of Ma’lik’s character. That’s not the type of person that he is.’’

When asked by Lauer if they felt Richmond could have been involved in what has been alleged, the Agrestas were silent before Madison interjected.

“That’s a very difficult question for them,’’ Madison said. “ Under advice of counsel, I’ve shielded the family, and I’ve tried to protect the integrity of this attorney-client relationship.’’

The Agrestas said they are very private people, so they were initially reluctant to appear and speak in Richmond’s defense.

“The right thing to do is always the hardest thing to do,’’ Greg Agresta said. “Even when (Ma’lik) went back home with his mom and dad, he’s always been a part of our family. The problems you have in society today, too many people want to share the good times. When individuals and family members run across difficult times, right or wrong, they want to bail.’’

Anonymous gets involved
The case has received heavy attention because of the role of social media and the concern by some in Steubenville that the football players are being treated as above the law. The hacker group Anonymous has gotten involved, taking over a high school booster site last week and threatening to release personal information about other people they feel should be charged in the incident.

Local authorities felt that so much misinformation was being disseminated online that the Steubenville Police Department created its own website called “Steubenville Facts” to disseminate information that it has collected about the case.

A particular video released by Anonymous that has caused outrage depicts a teen crudely joking about the alleged rape, but the teen was not present during the incident and is not being investigated for any crimes, his attorney said Monday. A photo also was posted by Anonymous online of Mays and Richmond carrying the alleged victim, who appears to be unconscious. However, attorneys for the football players contend that the girl was conscious and able to consent.

Madison confirmed that it is Richmond in the photo.

“He is seen in that photo,’’ Madison said. “The other problem becomes that the photo, taken in conjunction with the video, draws this negative inference that has gone way out of proportion.’’

The attorneys for both defendants are trying to get the trial moved far away from Steubenville and hope to delay the proceedings until the emotion surrounding the case dies down. Madison does not feel his client can get a fair trial in Steubenville.

“It has gone to the point where witnesses are reluctant to participate for fear of being vilified and (having) their personal information placed on the Internet,’’ Madison said.

“At the end of the day, you have the best judicial system in the world,’’ Greg Agresta said. “Embrace the process and let it work. We respect those people for the opinions that they have as far as protesting. In turn, embrace the legal system. It will work, and it does work, right or wrong.’’ 

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