By Drew Singer
(Reuters) - Attorneys for two Ohio teenage football players accused of raping a 16-year-old student have asked that the trial be moved because potential witnesses are afraid to come forward in defense of the boys, one of the lawyers said on Monday.
Walter Madison, the attorney for one of the accused rapists, Ma'lik Richmon, said social media efforts to bring the alleged rape into the national spotlight have led to an atmosphere of intimidation and coercion.
"This has a chilling effect on witnesses who could come forward to be part of this process so my client can get a fair and full proceeding," he told Reuters. "So, we're left without the opportunity to make our case. That's pretty serious."
Richmond and Trenton Mays, both 16 and members of the Steubenville High School football team, are charged with raping a 16-year-old fellow student at a party last August.
The two students are set to be tried as juveniles in February in Steubenville, a city of 19,000 about 40 miles west of Pittsburgh.
Madison said his client's mother has had to change her cell phone number multiple times due to threats and harassment.
Last week, the online activist group Anonymous made public a picture allegedly of the rape victim, being carried by her wrists and ankles by two young men, and of a video that showed several other young men joking about an alleged assault.
Madison said that Richmond is not seen in the video.
A county sheriff under fire for how he has handled the high school rape investigation faced down a crowd of protestors on Saturday and said no new charges will be brought against anyone involved in the case.
Activists say there had been a cover-up by local officials to protect the integrity of the high school's football program.
Meanwhile, a petition to the White House calling for the two rape suspects to be tried as adults reached 25,000 signatures Monday, the threshold required to receive a response from the Obama Administration.
Moving the case to the adult court system would allow for a jury trial and a more severe penalty, the petition says.
"This is a serious offense and this needs to be an example for everyone that this type of behavior should not, and will not be tolerated in our society," it says.
The petition, created December 25, more than doubled its number of supporters overnight. It had 11,000 signatures on Sunday.
It was submitted to the White House through its online petition website, We The People. Now that it has the required 25,000 signatures, the Obama Administration will give an official statement at some point in the future. The petition has no legal impact.
(Editing by Paul Thomasch and Andrew Hay)