The New York Times this morning released a deep dive report about the investigation into sexual assault allegations against Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston, highlighting the laundry list of failures in how the university and the Tallahassee Police Department handled the investigation.
To rehash: reports surfaced in November 2013 that Winston had been the subject of a since-closed sexual assault investigation stemming from an incident that took place in December 2012. At the time, Florida State was undefeated and on its way to its first Bowl Championship Series national championship since 1999; Winston was in the middle of a season that would end with him winning the Heisman Trophy, college football’s top award. After the reports came to light, William Meggs, of the Florida State Attorney’s Office, reopened an investigation into the case. Meggs ultimately decided that there was not enough evidence to bring charges against the quarterback.
In December, a week after Meggs’ jocular press conference announcing that there would be no charges, Patricia Carroll, the attorney for the Florida State student who accused Winston of assault, held a press conference outlining the failures of the investigation. “This was a complete failure of an investigation of a rape case,” Carroll said as she outlined problems with the case. She later added: “This was an investigation into a rape victim, not a rape suspect.” Carroll detailed failures on the part of the Tallahassee Police Department and lead investigator Scott Angullo, and failures from Florida State as well.
The Times report echoes many of those accusations, providing evidence from police reports, emails from the Tallahassee Police Department, and other documents showing the lack of gravity Angullo and the TPD lent to the case. According to the Times:
–“[P]olice did not follow the obvious leads that would have quickly identified the suspect as well as witnesses, one of whom videotaped part of the sexual encounter.” Angullo and the TPD did not contact the bar where the alleged victim, Winston, and other football players who witnessed the attack had been earlier in the night to obtain surveillance video of their time there. Angullo also made no effort to find the “football player named Chris” that the accuser had identified as one of the men she left the bar with. After failing on early attempts, Angullo stopped trying to track down the taxi driver who had taken the woman and the football players home from the bar.
–Angullo, the lead investigator, waited two months to file his first police report of the incident, and he “prematurely suspended his inquiry without informing the accuser.” This prohibited Angullo and the TPD from obtaining valuable evidence in the case, including a video that existed on the phone of one of the players who allegedly witnessed the sexual encounter.
–After the woman identified Winston as her attacker on January 10, 2013, the TPD waited more than two weeks to contact Winston, and then only did so by phone. Winston declined to talk. Angullo also decided against subjecting Winston to a DNA test. He then suspended the investigation. Winston would not submit to a DNA test until the State Attorney’s Office took up the case nearly a year later.
–Police did not subpoena phone records from Winston or either two witnesses “even though they investigated all electronic communications to and from the accuser around the time of the sexual encounter.”
The Times investigation also found that the university made mistakes — possibly in violation of federal law — in how it handled the case:
–Though the FSU athletic department “had known early on that Mr. Winston had been accused of a serious crime,” the school did not seem to launch its own inquiry into the case until after the football season was completed. Federal law requires athletic department officials who have knowledge of sexual crimes to notify university administrators. Florida State did not comment to the Times about whether it had launched its own investigation into the case before the allegations became public.
Again, many of those discoveries are similar to the complaints Carroll, the accuser’s attorney, leveled against both the Tallahassee Police Department and Florida State shortly after the case concluded. The Times piece, however, includes little criticism of Meggs, the state prosecutor, against whom Carroll pulled no punches either. As I wrote after Carroll’s press conference in December:
Meggs and the [State Attorney’s Office], Carroll said, focused more on the victim’s relationship with another man than they did on Winston after separate DNA was found on her underwear. That DNA came from a previous consensual sexual relationship, but Meggs said at his press conference that it would have complicated the case were he to file rape charges. Carroll noted that previous sexual encounters were not admissible in court during rape cases under Florida law. The SAO investigation spent more time searching for the man involved in the consensual relationship than they did investigating Winston, Carroll said.
“This,” Carroll said, “was an investigation into rape victim, not a rape suspect.”
One thing is painfully clear from the Times story: this was not merely a one-time failure by Florida State or the Tallahassee Police Department. The Times report includes details of another sexual assault the TPD failed to properly investigate. That assault occurred shortly after the Winston incident and did not involve an athlete. The woman who accused a male student of sexual assault in that case told the Times that the first thing an investigating officer asked her “was if I was sure this was rape or if I just didn’t want a baby or wanted the morning after pill.” The investigating officer also asked the woman, “Are you sure you want to file a report? It will be very awkward, especially for a female.” That question is similar to points investigators reportedly raised in the Winston case, when the accuser’s attorney said that investigators told her that “the victim needs to think long and hard before proceeding against (Winston),” because she would “be raked over the coals and her life will be made miserable.”
It shouldn’t be shocking that there were other cases handled as poorly as Winston’s. This is a fact of life when it comes to investigating rape and sexual assault cases in the United States, where just 8 percent of sexual assault cases reported to police end in prosecution and just 3 percent end in jail time for the accused, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. Perhaps the fear that cases won’t be handled properly explains why just 40 percent of sexual assaults are reported to police in the first place.
On college campuses, the problems may be even worse, both when sexual assaults involve athletes and when they don’t. At universities like Michigan and Connecticut, schools with big-time athletic departments, women have accused administrators of failing to properly handle sexual assaults involving athletes. But similar complaints have been filed at schools that aren’t athletic powerhouses and in cases that don’t involve athletes — at places like Harvard, Dartmouth, Swarthmore, and Amherst. The list goes on.
At the end of the Times report, Adam Ruiz, a former Florida assistant state prosecutor, tells the reporters: “I learned quickly what football meant in the South. Clearly, it meant a lot. And with respect to this case I learned that keeping players on the field was a priority.”
In the Winston case, there is certainly truth to that. The idea that football players feel they have a right to treat women how they please is backed up by a long list of sexual assault allegations against high school, collegiate, and professional players. And the idea that they won’t be held accountable for their actions is bolstered by cases that weren’t taken seriously at all three levels as well. But boiling it down to that level of simplicity also misses a major lesson of the Winston case and the others like it: we’re not doing a good enough job properly handling allegations of rape and sexual assault when they happen. That’s true whether the cases involve star quarterbacks at a football-mad universities, or whether they don’t.