Get this much straight: Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston hasn’t been found innocent. What his farcical, two-years-after-the-fact student conduct hearing really found was that too many football-friendly investigators had bungled things too well — and too much time had passed — to get at the truth of whether he forced himself on an un-consenting young woman. This isn’t over — nor should it be. Because while there was no campus verdict on whether Winston committed rape, the verdict on Florida State is in: It’s crony heaven for guys in cleats.
Winston is not free of his accuser yet; she will persist in trying to win some kind of legal resolution. “Unquestionably,” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a civil rights lawyer, a CEO of Champion Women (an advocacy group for women in sports) and a legal consultant to the young woman. Winston’s defenders claim his accuser is a gold-digger, but to be frank, a civil lawsuit is the avenue that’s left to her since Florida State’s pally local cops robbed her of a proper criminal inquiry, back when she was an 18-year-old, first-semester freshman dreaming up this supposed scam against a player who had yet to appear in a game and whose name she didn’t yet know. “It’s the only thing a court can give you at this point,” Hogshead-Makar said.
Florida State officials convened the student conduct hearing only after taking a world of heat for appearing thoroughly obstructionist and interfering in Winston’s case. The school remains under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for its allegedly tardy handling of the rape accusation against its star quarterback, and stories by Fox Sports and the New York Times have illustrated a damning pattern of interference in favor of athletes in legal trouble.
The judge chosen to oversee Winston’s student hearing was an 80-year-old former state Supreme Court justice named Major B. Harding. Yet somehow Harding couldn’t manage to make up his mind whether Winston had broken any rules of student conduct, writing weakly, “The evidence regarding the events that unfolded between you and [the accuser] once in your room are irreconcilable. In light of all the circumstances, I do not find the credibility of one story substantially stronger than that of the other. Both have their own strengths and weaknesses.”
There are so many problems with this jump-ball bail-out of a non-opinion it’s hard to know which page of it to throw away first. But let’s start with the fact that one student’s story would indeed seem more tested than the other’s because of the simple fact that she went to the police on the night in question, submitted herself to a rape kit at a hospital and faced repeated questioning over the past two years. Winston, on the other hand, refused to be interviewed by police or university officials and has never been seriously cross-examined by any authority.
Winston also refused to testify in his own student hearing, instead reading a prepared statement, after which Harding managed to question him just momentarily, asking in what manner did the accuser give him her consent? Winston answered, “verbally and physically.” When asked to be specific, he replied, “Moaning is mostly physically.” That sums up his account of himself under questioning.
The following are facts: In the middle of the night of Dec. 7, 2012, Winston’s accuser sent out a plea for help to friends, who found her distraught and called police. At a hospital, she was examined by a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner and interviewed by officers. She was shaking and vomiting, and police noted bruises forming on her. She was unable to name her alleged assailant, whom she had met in a bar. But she recognized him five weeks later in a class they both attended and again contacted police. Yet police waited 11 days to ask Winston for an interview — whereupon Winston sent his lawyer to talk to them instead. DNA evidence established Winston indeed had sex with the woman, but he said it was consensual.
Whether this was an assault or the most terrible misunderstanding, the young woman did what a victim is supposed to. As one of her lawyers put it, she “immediately told her friends, parents, medical personal, police, the State Attorney’s office and her school that she was raped . . . subjected herself to a painful pelvic examination, stayed in contact with the school’s confidential rape victim advocate, and subjected herself to two years of oppressive media scrutiny and social media death threats.” Winston, meanwhile, did what the accused is supposed to do: got himself a lawyer and kept his mouth firmly shut.
The police, on the other hand, apparently did almost nothing they were supposed to do. There were months-long delays in pursuing the case, inexplicable lapses in procedures, basic failures to find and interview witnesses. They seemed to devote more energy to tipping off Florida State administrators than to getting the truth — somehow campus officials obtained the police reports at least four days before the state attorney. A deputy state’s attorney said this “poor police work” by the Tallahassee cops irretrievably damaged the ability to bring criminal charges.
A student hearing is not the same as a criminal court. The burden of proof in Winston’s hearing was not the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard but rather the lesser “preponderance of the evidence.” Yet Harding refused to make a judgment, defaulting on his responsibility. In the process, he implicitly gave validity to an incomplete and botched investigation and blessed the silences and obfuscations that went with it.
Whether Winston is innocent or guilty, the conduct of each student after the night in question is perfectly clear. Winston’s accuser followed through on every investigative and adjudication process and opened herself to cross-examination, no matter how difficult. Winston evaded it at every stage — with a lot of campus help.