Fault Lines
18 October 2017
lostutter hacker

Deric Lostutter Gets Two Years for “Helping” Rape Investigation

March 15, 2017 (Fault Lines) — One headline makes it seem like Deric Lostutter got some serious punishment for nothing:

Vigilante who Conspired to Hack Local Football Website Sentenced to 2 Years

Who cares about someone hacking a high school football team website, right? He didn’t gain access to anyone’s bank accounts or credit card numbers. He didn’t steal personal data from people for his own financial gain. The guy didn’t crash Google.com or anything like that. Could the website have been that awesome? Doesn’t two years seem like an awful lot for just hacking some high school football fansite?

As you probably expect, there’s a lot more to the story. Another article provides the important details:

Lostutter, 29, had pleaded guilty in November to conspiring to hack a website associated with Steubenville High School athletics and to a second charge of lying to an FBI agent who was investigating the breach.

Lostutter had portrayed himself as a white knight and whistleblower who stopped a government and media cover-up of the rape case, assistant U.S. Attorney Neeraj Gupta said.

“Not only was there not a coverup, … but he didn’t help this investigation at all,” Gupta said.

 Lying to an FBI agent might be an extremely important tidbit. In fact, that may be the single most important thing that turned Lostutter’s situation from an inconvenient look at his misguided hacking activities by the feds into a federal criminal case that ultimately got him two years in prison. That’s not the reason for charges that’s most interesting here, however.

What Lostutter did may rightfully be a crime and went far beyond simply not helping the investigation. That’s a pretty big understatement, actually. Lostutter  perfectly illustrated why many think we should leave justice to the justice system, not to individuals. The system has its problems, but it generally compares favorably to vigilantism, especially when you’re dealing with an unscrupulous vigilante pissed off about a supposed rape. Lostutter did all of the crazy things you’d expect from someone unrestrained, sure of his own righteousness, and attacking an easy target:

In December 2012, months after the assault, Lostutter and a Virginia man, Noah McHugh, agreed to hack into a fan website for Steubenville High School athletics. The two obtained access to the account management page of the site, which included nude photos, and the email of the man who ran it, according to Lostutter’s plea.

Lostutter made a video to post on the site threatening to reveal personal identifying information about Steubenville High students.

He also falsely claimed that the man who administered the fan site was a child pornographer and ran a “rape crew,” according to his plea agreement.

It takes a pretty crazy person to threaten to reveal personal identifying information about high school kids, particularly when those kids are are likely to receive backlash from other weirdos as a result. Accusing someone of being a child pornographer and of running a “rape crew” takes it farther down the same crazy path. The fact there were nude photos on a fan website for high school athletics is bizarre, but it doesn’t seem the guy was in fact guilty of any of Lostutter’s allegations.

Often, behind the most intense condemnations of people for things like rape are crazy people just looking for an outlet. That seems to fit the bill not just for Lostutter, but for many of the other people his actions brought into the mix:

Jane Hanlin, the Ohio prosecuting attorney who recused herself from the rape case, said in a written victim impact statement that “absolutely everything that could be done to solve this crime had been done in August 2012. … And yet, Mr. Lostutter took it upon himself to invade our town, threaten our young people and ignite an international firestorm.”

Hanlin wrote that she and her children received threats because of Lostutter.

“His actions ignited protests, hundreds of unknown masked individuals paraded through our town, thousands and thousands of death threats were issued via email, telephone messages, facsimile, anonymous letters — virtually every form of communication was used to threaten and terrify the people of Steubenville,” Hanlin wrote.

On one hand, the whole reason Lostutter supposedly got involved was because he thought authorities weren’t doing their job. His theory seemed to be that the local high school football players did something awful to a young woman but were local heroes who were above the law. Lostutter was a conspiracy theorist who thought there was a huge cover-up and that Hanlin was part of it. If he was right, her statements are consistent with that; of course she’d claim she did absolutely everything that could be done to solve the crime.

On the other hand, if she’s telling the truth, the product of Lostutters actions was Hanlin’s innocent kids and others being threatened. Even if she could’ve done more to pursue the case, there’s a problem. His obsession with the punishing both the supposed rapists and those who didn’t throw the book at them eventually created a mob of people who felt the same way. One Lostutter focusing his anger on some accused kids is terrible. A mob of Lostutters is ten times worse.

His supporters at sentencing confirmed he thought he was doing something good:

Several supporters submitted letters seeking leniency for Lostutter. One wrote, “I believe Deric did these things to help the victim and her family. To be a hero. To not just be a bystander.”

That reveals an important aspect of vigilantism as well as the justice system. In many people there exists a powerful drive to accuse and punish. When we start to pretend that indulging that drive is helping someone, we suddenly have a highly motivating excuse for doing all sorts of awful things to people. Doing harm gets twisted into doing good. It’s easier to see through to the rotten core motivation of people lashing out in the name of justice when it’s a vigilante doing crazy things online, but the difference between Lostutter and many people in the justice system whom we praise as good public servants is often just a matter of who has authority to carry out their malicious desires.

Even if you accept that Lostutter committed a serious crime and deserves punishment, some things about the whole situation are still likely to not sit well with you. Specifically, consider what happened to some of the rapists he targeted:

Two teenage boys ended up being charged in the rape case, and when the case went to trial in March 2013, the two were convicted and sentenced to one to two years in prison.

At least two of the boys were tried and convicted of performing sexual acts on the victim against her will, and one of them got less time than Lostutter. Sure, they’re kids, but it was rape. Lostutter pled guilty, but that won’t stop people from continuing to believe what he did was important and praiseworthy. Moreover, Hanlin’s comments about the errors Lostutter made are unlikely to make his supporters jump ship:

There were no multiple parties where the victim was repeatedly raped. There was no transportation of the victim in the trunk of a car. There were not a host of “star football players” who watched and did nothing. That narrative was simply not true, but it led to a mob mentality, which encouraged outsiders to speculate about a “cover up,” even though local law enforcement had uncovered the case and began its public prosecution long before the first internet blogger arrived on the scene. The crime that Lostutter was describing was not the crime that occurred.

In the grand scheme of things, a lot of Hanlin’s gripes are somewhat minor. Unless the facts evolved drastically between the probable cause hearing and trial, the victim was severely intoxicated and in the company of four football players that night. The rapes didn’t happen at multiple parties, but there were multiple parties that night and the victim was in fact raped. She wasn’t transported in the trunk of a car, but football players apparently took off her shirt and sexually assaulted her in the back of the car while recording and taking pictures of her. That’s still horrible. They even took her to the basement of a house where one of them tried to put his penis into her mouth, and then they stripped her naked before another sexually assaulted her again.

The football players went on to share pictures of their crimes at a party. In the depraved grand scheme of things, the fact she was raped but not at multiple parties, the fact she was raped again in the back of a car but not stuck in the trunk, and the fact that star football players didn’t watch the rape and do nothing doesn’t make any of this all that much better.

Lostutter’s inaccurate narrative isn’t what should make us angry. Hanlin explains something that’s more blameworthy:

One of the other unfortunate effects of Lostutter’s involvement was that the fear and hate that he was spreading through his false theories resulted in witnesses being frightened, intimidated and afraid to cooperate with local law enforcement officials. Up until the point that Lostutter arrived, local law enforcement had received near complete cooperation from witnesses. After Lostutter incited so much hate and fear, families were afraid to allow their children to cooperate. Thus, Lostutter did not help the matter—he actually hurt the prosecution’s efforts.

Lostutter’s attempts at justice messed up officials’ attempts at justice. Assuming he’s wrong and they’re right, he made it difficult for them the hold rapists accountable. Whether that’s more deserving of punishment than the rapes themselves is a different matter entirely. What’s interesting is that Lostutter’s status as a hero or a meddler depends on whether he was right about what happened and who should be held responsible.

Lostutter’s situation shows why we should be careful about pursuing what we perceive to be justice with too much zeal. We might see a conspiracy where there isn’t one. We might be operating based on an incorrect set of facts. Our methods may be excessive or even as bad as or worse than what we’re opposing. In the end, what we’re doing might do more to thwart what we should be trying to achieve than to further it.

Authorities clearly see the problem with aggressive tactics against rapists when they come from someone like Lostutter. In reality, though, the problem exists anytime we choose to aggressively go after someone for something we think they’ve done, even when we do it through the system.

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