FSU quarterback Jameis Winston, a leading Heisman trophy candidate and one of college football’s biggest stars, will not be charged after a Florida State University student accused him of raping her last December, Florida state attorney Willie Meggs said Thursday afternoon.
During his brief comments, Mr. Meggs was careful to note that football considerations, including the Seminoles’ hopes for a national championship and the fact that Heisman trophy ballots are due Monday, had nothing to do with the decision.
“I want to assure you that our timing had nothing to do with Heisman demands or a football schedule," he said from his Tallahassee office. "As with every case before us, we want to be confident in the decision that we make. We’ve dealt with athletes on prior occasions, and made decisions to prosecute them if the facts merited it."
Meggs’s announcement caps a story that has preoccupied the college football world for weeks, both for its magnitude and its disturbing familiarity. Sexual-assault cases involving college athletes are depressingly routine, but the Winston case was about as high-profile as these things get: The Seminoles are as good as they’ve been in more than a decade and, with an undefeated season and a No. 1 BCS ranking, sit poised to play for a national title. (In their final game, the ACC title game against Duke, they are heavily favored.)
The lead-up to Thursday afternoon’s announcement was a circus. Attorneys on both sides have been trading jabs and leaking strategic scoops since the story broke. The Tallahassee Democrat website featured a countdown clock in the hours before Meggs’s presser. Reactions on Twitter were divided among Winston supporters, those who believed him guilty, and those who were angry that the 2 p.m. press conference prompted ESPN to bump a "SportsCenter" appearance by Ron Burgundy, comedian Will Ferrell’s “Anchorman 2” character.
At the center of it all has been “Famous Jameis,” the 19-year-old freshman quarterback with a goofy smile and an arm that fires heat-seeking missiles. On the field he’s put together a season that has made him the favorite to win the Heisman trophy later this month. Off it, his case has raised questions about the conduct of local police and the treatment given star athletes facing legal trouble, polarizing an FSU fan base that had been reveling in its first BCS title run in a decade and a half. One side sees the accuser as a jilted lover seeking revenge, attention, or money. Others see Winston as yet another example of an entitled college athlete getting away with violent behavior.
This is what is known: On Dec. 7 of last year, Winston’s accuser filed a police report claiming she was sexually assaulted in an apartment near Florida State’s campus in Tallahassee. In January, she identified Winston as her attacker, and subsequent DNA results confirmed that the two had sex on the night in question. Winston, through his attorney, maintained that it was consensual. The victim’s family and her attorney say it was rape.
But the case went inactive in February because the alleged victim no longer wanted to pursue the case. That changed last month. The conduct of the Tallahassee Police Department leading up to that point has been called into question, with many wondering why Meggs’s office wasn’t made aware of the case until last month, when several media outlets had sniffed out the story. The accuser’s attorney, Patricia Carroll, also says that Tallahassee police tipped off Winston’s camp without alerting the victim’s family, giving them time to prepare a defense. Even more damning was the charge, from Ms. Carroll, that police had warned her client that Tallahassee was a “big football town” and that her life “would be made miserable.”
Meggs, too, has publicly expressed frustration with how police handled the matter. “It would have been better if we all got involved a little earlier,” he said during Thursday's press conference. His office ultimately decided there was not sufficient evidence to file charges or to reasonably expect that a trial would result in a conviction.
Winston, of course, is just the latest in a long line of high-profile athletes facing sexual-assault accusations who avoided prosecution or, if prosecuted, conviction – the NBA's Kobe Bryant, the NFL's Ben Roethlisberger, and members of the Duke University lacrosse team are recent examples. But experts and victims' rights groups warn that such cases aren’t typical of sexual-assault cases in general, and that the rate of false accusations is much lower than it seems when cases involving athletes are the representative sample.
“False accusations are quite rare,” says Scott Berkowitz, founder and president of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, an national anti-sexual-assault organization and hot line. “Studies suggests it’s somewhere in the range of 5 percent, so 19 out of 20 accusations are true.”
“One reason the false report rate is so low is that reporting a rape is not an easy thing to do,” he continues. “It takes hours of police interviews and a forensic physical exam that can take up to hours. That’s not something a normal person would do unless there’s a real reason.”
Cases involving famous people, too, can make things difficult for advocacy groups because “the pattern of those cases is not typical,” he says. “The biggest risk is that defendants in those tend to have very aggressive defense attorneys who go after the victims and try to destroy their reputations. It’s not surprising that other victims seeing that would be hesitant to come forward themselves.”
Indeed, one dominant narrative about Winston’s accuser on FSU message boards, Reddit, and other social media is that she was a “football groupie” looking to get revenge on Winston for refusing to be her boyfriend.
But such highly visible cases have a small silver lining, says Tracy Cox, a spokeswoman for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a nonprofit advocacy group. They provide an opportunity for communities to talk about sexual violence and seek ways to prevent these crimes,” she writes via e-mail. “We’ve seen several high-profile cases come to light recently, and that has put the topic on the nation’s radar. It’s important to remember that oftentimes we only hear about certain cases in the news, but these crimes happen every day.”
Winston, to reiterate, has not been charged with any wrongdoing. With the threat of charges lifted, he’s a strong favorite to win the Heisman trophy next week, and all signs point to the Seminoles cruising to a national title in January. But the case has left the reputation of the victim, college athletics, and Tallahassee authorities in shambles and furthered a narrative about false sexual-assault accusations that is rarely true.