Two high school football players accused of repeatedly sexually assaulting 16-year-old while she was intoxicated

Two high school football players subjected a 16-year-old girl to a rape attack that amounted to "degradation and humiliation" while she was too drunk to repel them, a court heard on Wednesday.

In a case that has split a struggling but sports-obsessed former steel town in Ohio and put the spotlight on the hazards of social media, two young local football players went on trial, accused of attacking the girl during a series of drunken parties last August.

Steubenville in eastern Ohio has been inundated with protesters and supporters for both sides, and emotions ran high in the buildup to the trial.

"This case is simple and direct. It hinges on the defendants' knowledge of her [the complainant's] substantial impairment … and their exploitation of her substantial impairment," special prosecutor Marianne Hemmeter told the court.

The defence is preparing to claim that the girl was a willing participant in drunken high jinks and sexual play.

Hemmeter told the court that in a night of partying last summer, the girl became so intoxicated that she was vomiting and that the two defendants held her hair back while she was sick in the street.

"You will hear witnesses testify that she was stumbling, slurring her words, and using others to help keep her balance," said Hemmeter.

But then the boys assaulted her in the back of a car as they drove from party to party and attacked her again in the basement of a friend's house, the court heard.

"You will hear witnesses testify that they saw Trent Mays try to put his penis in her mouth, but because her mouth wouldn't open, he abandoned that attempt," Hemmeter said.

She added in her opening statement that witnesses saw the other defendant, Ma'Lik Richmond sexually assault the girl with his fingers while she lay, apparently motionless, on a basement couch.

Mays's attorney, Brian Duncan, told the judge in a brief opening statement: "Trent Mays did not rape the young lady in question." Richmond's attorney, Walter Madison, did not offer any opening remarks.

Rape charges can incorporate non-consensual penetration of the vagina with body parts or objects other than a penis.

The two teenage defendants sat side by side with their lawyers in the Jefferson county court, wearing neat buttoned-down shirts and ties, which did not detract from their obvious youth.

The case is being tried in juvenile court in Steubenville in front of Judge Thomas Lipps, but without a jury. The defendants are being named because their identies have become well-known and widely publicised during the investigation.

The complainant, who is from neighbouring West Virginia, and some close friends are expected to testify, as are several key witnesses who discussed the incidents in graphic terms on social media during and after the events.

The court heard during early testimony that the girl was so helpless on the street that onlookers were offering money if people would urinate on her.

There are several factors complicating the case beyond the fact that the girl has said she cannot remember the events because she was too intoxicated.

She took a shower before she went to the police, so there is limited forensic evidence to help establish whether she was forced to engage in sexual activity or consented.

Some potential evidence surrounding the incidents that had been filmed or recorded on mobile devices was erased before being investigated.

One picture taken on a mobile phone camera shows the defendants carrying the complainant by her wrists and ankles, her partially-obscured head apparently tipped back. It has become a central piece of evidence in the case, where so many other potential exhibits were erased by witnesses in the weeks after the night in question.

Supporters of the complainant claim it clearly shows she is being carried around while unconscious or barely conscious. But supporters of the boys argue it was a joke photo in which all the subjects were participating as they larked around.

The judge has allowed a pool camera in the courtroom, but witnesses can opt not to be videotaped when testifying and several chose that protection on the first day of the trial.

Richmond and Mays both deny rape.

One 17-year-old witness for the prosecution said the complainant and their companions took 'slushie' cups of vodka to drink at the party. She said her friend quickly became drunk and she asked the complainant not to leave with several Steubenville athletes, including the defendants.

"She went downhill extremely fast. I told her to stay. She said she'd be fine," said the witness, who then saw her friend leave the party.

The witness said when she picked up her friend the following morning the girl was confused and had messy hair.

She asked what had happened. "She started crying and said 'I don't remember anything,'" the witness said.

The trial continues.

© Guardian News and Media 2013