The Florida State Attorney’s office will not bring sexual assault charges against Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston, state attorney William Meggs announced at a press conference Thursday, bringing a month of speculation about a case that is nearly a year old to a close.
The incident occurred on December 7, 2012. The woman identified Winston as her assaulter a month later, only to be warned, her family says, by Tallahassee police that if she pursued a case against the budding quarterback who is now a Heisman Trophy candidate, “she will be raked over the coals and her life will be made miserable.” The incident wasn’t referred to the state attorney’s office until 11 months after it occurred.
Meggs and the state attorney’s office did not file charges because there was not a preponderance of evidence to secure a conviction, he said at the press conference. That doesn’t mean Winston is innocent, it merely means there wasn’t evidence to prove a sexual assault. “I know there was a sexual event,” Meggs said. “One side says it not consensual and the other, apparently, said it was was.”
Winston’s DNA was found on the woman’s underwear, confirming earlier reports, but so was another man’s, Meggs said. Given the lack of other available evidence, that would have made securing a conviction harder. The timing of the Tallahassee Police Department’s investigation complicated the case as well. “It would have been somewhat easier” to investigate the case had he known about it sooner, Meggs, who was first notified of the case on November 13, said. “I can’t speculate. We might have had additional facts, some better memories. Time is certainly important.”
Though Meggs was hesitant to classify the police department’s handling of the case as “brushing it aside,” he did say “it would have been better had it been handled differently.”
Whatever the cause, Jameis Winston will not be charged with sexual assault.
Winston may be innocent. Maybe Jameis Winston didn’t get a fair shake from the media that, by now, is too used to hearing about sexual assaults committed by football players. Maybe he’s another athlete victimized by false charges, like those lacrosse players at Duke, who were smeared by prosecutors and the media and the public alike as a group of privileged athletes who had their way with a woman even before all the details proved they didn’t. Maybe that’s what happened here.
Or maybe it didn’t.
Maybe Jameis Winston really did assault that girl. Maybe he’s the latest in a long line of college football players who rape women and aren’t held accountable for it. Maybe that woman will have to live the rest of her life as a rape victim whose attacker went unpunished, as the butt of message board jokes, as the woman who tried to ruin Florida State’s storybook season and Jameis Winston’s Heisman Trophy campaign. Maybe she’ll have to turn on the TV on Saturdays and Sundays in the future and watch the man who had sex with her when she didn’t want to have sex with him play football. And make a lot of money doing so.
We’ll never know which is true, though, because it seems nobody involved took the complaint seriously enough to evaluate it properly when it happened. By the time the state attorney, who should have been involved from the beginning, heard of the incident, it was nearly a year after the incident occurred. The alleged victim’s memory was unclear. By the time he knew about it, Meggs said, parsing the exact details of the incident was difficult if not impossible.
Not taking claims of rape and assault seriously has dangerous consequences. For one, it allows for the possibility that people like Winston are falsely accused. Worst of all, though, it allows for incidents like this to become evidence in the argument that athletes like Winston are falsely accused all the time. It allows for the idea to spread that there is a prevalence of young women who are irresponsible drunks who regret having sex and file rape charges and women who seek out athletes for sexual encounters so that they can then file false rape charges and destroy careers. It isn’t hard to find such claims whenever incidents like these occur. The reality, though, is that only 2 to 8 percent of rape reports are based on false claims. The reality is that women who file false claims are often handed punishments far worse than those handed to actual rapists. The reality is that in some areas the law is written in a way that assumes women are lying from the outset. The reality is that, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, just 40 percent of rapes are reported to police. Just 8 percent result in prosecution. Just 3 percent result in prison time for the accused.
And the reality is that rape and sexual assault — and the inability or unwillingness of authorities to conduct proper investigations — is still a major problem on college campuses, both when they involve athletes and when they don’t. That’s why women across the country have filed Title IX complaints against schools as prominent as Dartmouth, Swarthmore, and the University of Connecticut. And it’s why sexual assault and rape keep happening at absurd rates. When we assume the woman is a liar, when there’s no punishment, when there’s not even a proper investigation, the continuance of rape culture is the inevitable result.
So maybe Jameis Winston is innocent. And maybe Jameis Winston is not. Regardless, we’re worse off because by the time someone took these sexual assault claims seriously, it was too late to find out which was true.