Winston, Justice and the Wicked American Way

Shame on the mass media in America. And I write that as a three-decade member of the media, working on the highest levels of TV and radio and written platforms, who usually defends media rights amid the 21st-century blur of WikiLeaks and whistle-blowers. What was so flagrantly wrong about the Jameis Winston case wasn’t the investigation itself; when an allegation is as serious as sexual assault, it should be probed until all efforts are exhausted.

The problem was that news of the re-opened investigation last month was made public — someone with an agenda leaked it to TMZ. And it triggered a national media feeding frenzy and judge-and-jury fest that conveniently disregarded a rather critical element: Winston had yet to be charged, doing a deplorable disservice to a 19-year-old and making you wonder how, say, a USA Today columnist named Christine Brennan could write last week that she was omitting Winston from her Heisman Trophy ballot. Uh, was Brennan inside the off-campus apartment in Tallahassee that night? Did she and other commentators blindly assuming Winston’s guilt know something the rest of us did not know? What happened to the American mandate known as presumption of innocence? Or is it more important to appease a sleazy media boss who needs you to produce eyeball traffic so he can sell a few ads?

Fact is, there were four people in the apartment on Dec. 7, 2012. One was the accuser. One was Jameis Winston. The other two, Chris Casher and Ronald Darby, were witnesses to the sex act. And both men, teammates of Winston in the Florida State football program and his roommates in the off-campus apartment, corroborated Winston’s story that he and his accuser had consensual sex, with Casher testifying the accuser had instructed the two men to leave her and Winston alone in his bedroom. “The girl yelled at me, `Get out,’ ” Casher told authorities, according to reports provided to the media. “She got up off the bed and turned off the light and tried to close the door. I could hear them continuing to have sex. She never indicated she was not a willing participant.”

You can accuse them of lying to protect a teammate, but, again, were you there? And while it’s hardly a proud moment for Florida State University when Casher says he was pranking Winston — he told investigators that he watched the sex act through a crack in the bedroom door before busting into the room — it’s of no consequence legally if the sex was consensual. This meant state attorney Willie Meggs had no witness to support the accuser’s rape claim. Further, according to Meggs, the accuser’s “recall of the events of that night have been moving around quite a bit.” And that she had “some memory lapses, some major issues.” And that “her testimony has some problems … she can’t remember some of the things.” All of which led to Meggs’ conclusion that the accuser would have been an unreliable witness to put on a courtroom stand, and, thus, would have undermined any chance of Meggs proving probable cause to a jury — even one as volatile as those we’ve seen recently in Florida, home of the Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman verdicts.

Thursday, Meggs announced he was not charging Winston.

Mind telling me, America the Beautiful, why you’ve put this kid through hell?

“We have a duty as prosecutors to determine if each case has a reasonable likelihood of conviction,” Meggs said at his nationally televised news conference. “After reviewing the facts in this case, we do not feel that we can reach those burdens.”

So Jameis Winston is free — free to win the Heisman, free to play for Florida State in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game, free to play for the national championship in Pasadena next month, free to possibly win another Heisman and national title next year, then free to become the potential No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL draft. He is free of legal burdens, free to live his life.

But that doesn’t mean he is free of a nagging asterisk, a stigma that some people will hold over him the rest of his days. In the end, that makes him the victim — the victim of a legal system that should be more protective of those who haven’t been charged with crimes but are dragged nonetheless through the public mud.

Watched by the nation’s scrutinous eyes, Meggs had no choice but to be transparent and make all evidence available to the media. This will create another feeding frenzy, particularly among grimier web sites, but at least the madness might be more grounded in fact. You’ll find in the evidence that the accuser’s comments to police — she was raped by Winston after she’d consumed five or six alcohol shots at a bar — don’t jibe with a toxicology report that shows her blood-alcohol level at a mere .04, below that of the legal limit to drive in Florida. Nor did the report reveal any evidence of drugs, eliminating any thought that she may have been slipped a date-rape drug. Point being, if she was claiming Winston had taken advantage of her in a drunken state and now was being protected by the Florida State football machine, it didn’t come out in the investigative wash.

Said Meggs: “I know there was a sexual event. One party said it was not consensual and other said it was. We had to figure out if we had a forceful act. We did not feel we had the evidence to go to trial. The reasonable likelihood of a conviction is based on `souped-up’ probable cause. When we get into a trial, the jury has to be convinced beyond reasonable doubt.”

Nor does it help the accuser that investigators found a second semen sample on her shorts — belonging to her boyfriend, as lab tests later revealed — in addition to the Winston DNA found in her underwear. That adds a layer that no longer pertains to Winston and prompts questions about her personal life. There’s just too much haze here — she remembers getting into a cab outside the bar with a “non-descript” African-American man, yet doesn’t remember the location of the apartment where they ended up. She remembers the alleged rapist dressing her after the act and driving her on a black scooter to an intersection in Tallahassee, which begs this question — why would she get on a scooter with someone who had just raped her? If the accuser was raped, she needed to have her story straight. Yes, it remains suspicious why the Tallahassee police department and Meggs’ office had a peculiar disconnect last December — why would Meggs not be aware of an investigation? And if Meggs’ incentive to re-open the case was to make sure the police weren’t protecting the Florida State football program, then good for him.

The bottom line is, her story crumbled. Though the accuser claimed she had physical injuries, the investigation found nothing of the such, according to Meggs. There is every reason to believe this was, in the 2013 collegiate vernacular, a consensual hookup, which happens on college campuses every day. Not every hookup involves an athlete who, a year later, becomes the Heisman Trophy favorite and the likely future recipient of a lucrative NFL contract. I can’t explain the nine-month lapse between the case being closed and the accuser deciding not to pursue it then — and the case being re-opened last month. But I do know that in that period, Winston went from being an inactive redshirt last December to Famous Jameis the Emerging American Superstar. Sometimes, people do the math and might want a piece of that future Winston money.

But they’d better be credible when stepping forward and accusing someone of rape. She fell short, way short. “We couldn’t count on her to prove elements of a crime,” Meggs said.

Winston’s attorney, Tim Jansen, implied that Winston might file civil suits against the accuser and news organizations who assumed his guilt. “His reputation is important to him. His career is important to him,” Jansen said, adding, “Certain organizations and certain statements were made that maligned him and were improper … He did nothing wrong. If he did nothing wrong and someone claims he (raped you) , yes, he’s being falsely accused.” Chances are, that is Jansen’s way of warding off a possible civil suit by the accuser. If Winston is wise, he will realize his record is clean and move on.

He should let others speak for him. Said Dr. Eric Barron, the Florida State president: “Recent weeks have provided a painful lesson, as we have witnessed harmful speculation and inappropriate conjecture about this situation and the individuals involved. As a result, we have all been hurt. A respect for the principle of due process is essential to the integrity of our community. Our commitment to each and every one of our students is unwavering and will remain our priority.”

Winston will win the Heisman and receive his award in New York next weekend, at a gala ceremony televised live by ESPN. No longer does ESPN have to worry about the awkward, surreal vibe of celebrating a Heisman winner charged with rape, but it will be interesting to analyze the voting process that concludes Monday. If voters base their decisions completely on the 2013 football season, the winning margin for Winston will be staggering — only Alabama’s AJ McCarron is in the reasonable picture among a shallow group of candidates (Sorry, I don’t consider Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch, who is piling up numbers on Tuesday nights against Western Michigan, to be a real candidate). And McCarron’s rising candidacy of late, based on Winston’s legal limbo and his own image as an American golden boy, took a perceived hit with Alabama’s loss to Auburn, though he played beautifully and had nothing to do with missed field goals and bad coaching strategy that led to the defeat.

There is specific language, though, on the official Heisman web site about the meaning and responsibility of the award. It says: “The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. Winners epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work. The Heisman Trophy Trust ensures the continuation and integrity of this award.”

Integrity. I assume some voters might wonder where Jameis Winston’s integrity was when he had a sex act with a woman he didn’t know. If you want to dock him for that, fine.

I say leave him alone. Hasn’t he been crucified enough?