TODAY   |  January 08, 2013

Former guardians defend Ohio teen rape suspect

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.

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>>> an alleged sex assault case out in ohio, getting a lot of national attention. the victim just 16 years old. in a moment we'll talk to the former guardians of one of the high school football players charged in this case. first, nbc's ron allen is in steubenville. ron, good morning.

>> reporter: good morning to you, matt. former guardians say they're coming forward to speak out for one of the defendants because they feel he hasn't been getting a fair hearing in the court of public opinion . we tried to talk to the young alleged victim and her family, but their attorney declined, saying that she is still struggling with what happened to her. and it's fortunate that they don't live in this small town still reeling from this case.

>> a very laid back young man, not, you know, outspoken or anything.

>> reporter: greg and jennifer agresta say they met him when he was 8. living in a troubled home, his parents unable to take care of him. the agrestas became his legal guardians . he lived with them for two years and have remained close ever since. he is now under house arrest at their home.

>> he knows we love him dearly and he knows if he's convicted and found guilty, whatever may happen, we love him and support him.

>> let's be clear. they knew she was drunk.

>> reporter: in court, prosecutors claimed richmond and co-defendant trenton mays treated the alleged rape victim, quote, like a toy, party hopping the night of august 11th , drinking heavily, the girl unconscious at times. mays allegedly attacked her in the backseat of a car while a friend, prosecutors say, took pictures that he later deleted. later that evening, prosecutors say, richmond attacked the girl along with mays while she was passed out in a basement. the defense claims everything that happened was consensual, no force was involved. both young men, high school sophomores, quarterback and wide receiver on the steubenville high school football team , have pleaded not guilty. and now another teenager, who protesters have directed their anger at, has said he is sorry for appearing in this videotape that's gone viral, joking about the alleged victim.

>> she's deader than a door nail.

>> i don't believe that it's a crime, but it's stupid.

>> reporter: an attorney said the young man, who we only called michael, insisted he was not at the party where the alleged attacks occurred and said he was drunk and commenting on what he had been told had happened.

>> with some sober reflection, he is ashamed and embarrassed to hear them himself. he sincerely regrets his behavior.

>> reporter: he has not been charge charged with a crime. and the attorneys for the two defendants in the case, mays and richmond , say they're probably going to try to move the trial far away from here and delay the proceedings until some of the emotion dies down. matt?

>> ron allen , thank you very much. jennifer and greg agresta are with us, exclusively, along with malik richmond 's attorney, roger matheson. so malik is home, in your home right now. although you're no longer his legal guardians . that's correct, right? what was his reaction when he found out he was being charged with this crime?

>> he was surprised. we weren't with him, obviously, when he found out. as i think everybody was surprised. it's out of character for malik. and i think everybody just was in shock.

>> you describe him as a laid back young man, a guy who is not outspoken, a quiet kid. yet he is charged with a very serious and disturbing crime. what was your reaction when you heard these charges?

>> i was very disappointed in the judgment that was exercised at that point in time. it's completely out of malik's character. that's not the type of person that he is. one thing that i will mention, jennifer and i are very private individuals, matt. it was very difficult for us to make the decision to come to new york and speak about the situation.

>> why did you?

>> but to be honest with you, the right thing to do is always the hardest thing to do. we're here as individuals. we've had malik since he was 8. even when he went back home with his mom and dad , he has always been part of our family, always. and even to this day -- the problems you have in society today, too many people want to share the good times and when individuals and family members run across difficult times, right or wrong, they want to bail.

>> and i appreciate that. yet i know that this young man trusts you. he confides in you. have you had that hard talk with him about this? have you said, malik, what happened? tell me the details of what happened the night in question. have you had that talk with him?

>> no, because it doesn't matter to us. we love him, irregardless 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 malik, if you ever need anything, good or bad, we are a phone call away. and when he called us, we were just that phone call away. we had to be there for him.

>> i want to make sure i understand this. you told him you're always there for him.

>> correct.

>> do you think the charges are accurate? do you think he was involved in this situation where this 16-year-old young lady was sexually assaulted?

>> you know, matt, that's a very difficult question for them. under advice of counsel, i've shielded the family and tried to protect the integrity of this attorney/client relationship. malik and i talked and those conversations, naturally, are protected and private. the thing that's most important for malik in terms of support, as they've indicated, it takes a village to raise a child. he needs the support from the family.

>> i understand that, mr. madison. however, the fact of the matter is that he is being charged with a very serious crime and this is going to come down to what happened on the night in question. you have said that everything that happened that night was consensual.

>> uh-huh.

>> however, there are some photos that have been circulating around on social media , on the internet. some have been taken down. but i know you've seen them. you've all seen them. one shows two young men, one is malik, carrying this young lady who appears to be unconscious. how do you coordinate this idea of consensual and unconscious?

>> they're privy to some of the conversations we've had. it's important for everyone to understand this very clearly. that video has nothing to do with malik richmond . he was not present. he did not produce that video.

>> was he one of the people involved in that photo, though? is he seen in that photo?

>> he is seen in that photo. the other problem becomes that the photo taken in conjunction with the video draws this negative inference that's gone way out of proportion. and the video, as we know, it can be reduced to that young man's form of expression.

>> let me ask you two real quick questions. one, do you think you can get a fair trial for this defendant in this town?

>> we cannot. matt, it has gone to the point where witnesses are reluctant to participate for fear of being vilified and placed personal information on the internet.

>> and the question to you, there's been talk that other people may have been involved in this incident this night and perhaps they are being protected because they are part of this football team , and this town reveres this football team . is that within consideration on your part? do you think there are others involved?

>> i have no comment to that. the other thing i would say, matt, at the end of the day , we have the best judicial system in the world. embrace the process and let it work. we respect those people for the opinions they have, that are protesting. in turn embrace the justice system . it does work, right or wrong.

>> thank you for joining us this morning. mr. madison, thank you.

>> thank you.