Decision not to charge Winston brings evidence, but few answers
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- They wanted option A or option B. They wanted a yes or a no.
Did he rape her?
Did she lie?
Willie Meggs wouldn't satisfy the reporters who kept hounding him for black-and-white answers on Thursday. The state attorney for Florida's second judicial circuit completed his task, made a decision and explained why he made it. Beyond that, he invited everyone to comb through the evidence collected by his office and by the Tallahassee Police Department during an investigation into an accusation of rape against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston and draw their own conclusions. Meggs announced on Thursday that he wouldn't charge Winston with any crime. He has closed the case, but since it wasn't his job to deliver a verdict, he didn't.
"I know there was a sexual event that occurred," Meggs said. "One party says it was not consensual. Apparently, the other side says it was. Our job was to figure out if it was a forceful act. We did not feel that we had sufficient evidence to go forward and bring the case to trial."
Meggs will leave the rest to everyone else. On Thursday, Tallahassee police released 86 pages of investigative material. They included the accuser's statement and subsequent interview, witness affidavits, an interview with a witness, DNA results and a toxicology report. The state attorney's office released all the evidence it collected on Friday.
The prosecutor's job is to determine whether he can build a case strong enough to get a conviction. Meggs said this case did not meet that standard. While prosecutors don't typically hold press conferences to announce they aren't charging someone, Meggs and his staff wanted to head off any accusations that they took it easy on Winston because he is the star quarterback, or that they hurried the investigation because voting for the Heisman Trophy closes on Monday. At Florida State, Meggs is still disliked in some athletic department circles because he brought a relatively weak case against Seminoles defensive tackle Travis Johnson in 2003. That case also involved a rape accusation, and Johnson was acquitted.
In Winston's case, the gap in time -- the accuser met with police immediately after the incident on Dec. 7, 2012, but the case went dormant from February until a Tampa Bay Times reporter inquired about it in November -- and questions about the TPD's handling of the case put Meggs and his staff in an awkward position. They investigated a case in November and December that they probably should have investigated in February. Late last month, the woman's attorney issued a statement questioning the TPD's tactics and accusing detective Scott Angulo of trying to dissuade the woman from going forward. The TPD responded this month by releasing a timeline of events that suggested the woman broke off contact. Meggs and his staff spent the past three weeks compiling all the evidence they could, and Meggs said they had exhausted every lead when they wrapped the case. After that, Meggs didn't feel he had a strong enough case to charge Winston with sexual battery.
Florida law requires agencies to release all evidence collected in closed investigations. Facing accusations of a cover-up from the woman's attorney, Tallahassee police quickly posted all the documentation they gathered on the web. Those documents offer some clues as to why Meggs declined to prosecute.
(Warning: The following paragraphs are extremely graphic. The details were taken from evidence released by the Tallahassee Police Department and from comments made by Meggs and Winston's attorney, Tim Jansen.)
The accuser told police she was drinking with a male friend at a local bar called Potbelly's. She said she was offered a shot by an unknown white male. She then told police that she possibly got into a cab, where she was taken to an unknown location. She told police she did not remember how she met the suspect, whom she wouldn't identify as Winston until Jan. 10. She told police she went with the suspect to his room and that he removed her clothes and began to have sex with her. She told them someone -- possibly the suspect's roommate -- entered the room at one point and told the suspect to stop. She told police that she told the man to stop and that she attempted to kick him off her. She told police the suspect pinned her arms down. She told police he took her into the bathroom and continued to have sex with her. She told police she did not remember dressing herself, and the next thing she remembered was being on the back of a scooter driven by the man and being dropped off at the corner of Call Street and Stadium Drive near Doak Campbell Stadium. In his report, officer Clayton Fallis wrote that the woman showed "no obvious signs of external injury" and that she was "slightly upset but clearly able to communicate." Fallis then noted that "several bruises began to appear on the victim" as the investigation continued. Fallis collected the woman's clothes, and a nurse collected a rape kit.
In that first interview, the accuser described the suspect as being about 6-foot-2. In an interview that afternoon, she described him as being 5-9. This, Winston's attorney Jansen said, was a "red herring." Jansen said the height discrepancy was never part of Winston's defense. Jansen said Winston never denied a sexual encounter occurred. On Dec. 18, 2012, Angulo interviewed Bria Henry, one of the friends the accuser called early on the morning of Dec. 7. (It was Henry who contacted the woman's mother that morning.) Henry told Angulo that the woman told her she had been hit on the head and blacked out when the incident occurred.
In affidavits, Florida State cornerback Ronald Darby and defensive end Chris Casher told a very different story. The players said they met the woman at Potbelly's and that she willingly joined them in a taxi. They each said Casher saw the woman give Winston oral sex because the bedroom door was ajar due to a non-working lock. Casher said he saw them take their clothes off, lie on the bed and begin to have intercourse. He and Darby said Casher burst in the room at one point to embarrass Winston, and Casher said the woman yelled "get out." "From what I saw, she was a more than willing participant," Casher said in his affidavit. Winston never spoke to investigators. He only provided a DNA sample.
Because the affidavits were prepared by Winston's attorney, investigators wanted to talk to the players again. Darby requested that his attorney be present during the interview. After Casher was informed that he could have an attorney present, he declined the attorney and consented to the interview, according to a police report written by Angulo. Casher's account was similar to the affidavit except for one detail. According to Angulo's report, Casher said he entered the room to ask if he could also have sex with the woman. According to that report, Casher told Angulo that had happened with other women he and Winston had brought back to their apartment.
Teammates might attempt to help a fellow player facing such an accusation, so Meggs and his staff had to consider that possibility. But independent of the witnesses, there were two other factors that would have made the case difficult to prosecute.
First, the woman had significant gaps in her memory. "Her recall of the events of that night have been moving around a good bit," Meggs said. "There are some memory lapses. There are some major issues. We have been trying to determine about the memory lapses what would cause that." A toxicology report found that the woman's blood-alcohol level was .048. For comparison's sake, the legal driving limit in Florida is .08. Meggs said technicians extrapolated based on the time the sample was taken and estimated her blood-alcohol level at the time of the incident would have been .10. No drugs were found in her system. Meggs said there was no physical evidence of any head trauma.
Second, investigators found a second DNA profile on the shorts the woman provided. (Winston's DNA profile was found on her underwear.) A defense attorney could use an unknown DNA profile as the foundation of his defense. If prosecutors couldn't positively identify the source of the unknown DNA profile, a defense attorney could suggest that the person who provided the other sample committed the rape. That would likely provide reasonable doubt in jurors' minds. So if Meggs was going to prosecute, he would have to identify that sample. "She acknowledged having sex with her boyfriend," Meggs said. "But she wouldn't tell me who her boyfriend was. Being a shrewd investigator, we found out, and we got his DNA." The investigation could have wrapped up more quickly if not for the delay, which required Meggs to enlist the help of a prosecutor in Ohio to request the boyfriend's DNA.
Identifying the boyfriend's DNA removed a significant stumbling block for prosecutors, but the woman's reluctance to name him could have been problematic. Combined with the conflicting witness accounts and the gaps in her memory, Meggs and his staff decided they would have a difficult time meeting their burden of proof at trial.
Patricia Carroll, the attorney representing the woman who accused Winston, released a statement shortly after Meggs announced his decision. "The victim and her family appreciate the State Attorney's efforts in attempting to conduct a proper investigation after an inordinate delay by the Tallahassee Police Department," Carroll said in the statement. "The victim in this case had the courage to immediately report her rape to the police and she relied upon them to seek justice. The victim has grave concerns that her experience, as it unfolded in the public eye and through social media, will discourage other victims of rape from coming forward and reporting."
Winston did not speak, but he also released a statement through Jansen. "I want to thank my family, friends, coaches and teammates for standing by me during a difficult time," Winston's statement said. "I also want to thank the State's Attorney's office for examining all the facts and reaching a decision in a conclusive manner. It's been difficult to stay silent through this process, but I never lost faith in the truth and in who I am. I'm very relieved I'll be able to continue my education at Florida State and I'm excited I can now get back to helping our team achieve its goals."
It may be a long time before Winston and the woman can move past this. Winston's name will forever be connected with a rape accusation. This will follow him no matter where he goes. Meanwhile, the woman's name, image and identifying details have been shared on the web by a tiny minority of sick fans. Along with Carroll, Meggs and Jansen expressed concern that the way this case played out in the public eye could make women afraid to report sexual assaults in the future.
As far as Winston's football career goes, nothing has changed. Florida State never suspended him, and he remains in good standing. He'll start in Saturday's ACC championship game against Duke. Meanwhile, Heisman voters will have to process this information as they consider Winston's candidacy. Obviously, the football factors are secondary to the real-life issues brought up in this case.
Different people will read the available evidence and come to different conclusions. Some will believe the accuser. Some will believe Winston. No one will come forward and provide a definitive account of what happened, because only the people in that apartment know -- and they don't all agree. Meggs declined to press charges because his job was to determine whether he could get a conviction. He left the determinations of guilt and innocence up to everyone else.