Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Public safety

Experts: Jameis Winston investigation flawed from the start

Less than two weeks after officials decided not to charge Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston in connection with a sexual assault allegation, experts familiar with the case say Tallahassee police botched critical aspects of the investigation from the start.

If police had conducted the inquiry better, they said, prosecutors might have closed the case months ago — and without so many unanswered questions.

"This is criminal investigation 101, it seems to me. It's a real failure," said Samuel Walker, author and emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. "The question in my mind is: Are they incompetent or was this willful?"

The criticisms center on leads that investigators did little to pursue in the days after the accusation was made. Tallahassee police declined to comment.

Early on Dec. 7, 2012, police got a call that said an 18-year-old woman had been sexually assaulted. Investigators interviewed her twice that day. Among the details she alleged: before the attack, she had been drinking with friends at Potbelly's, a bar; she at one point met a freshman on the FSU football team named Chris; she later was in a taxi with men she didn't know, and a student ID was used to get a discount on the ride; during the sexual encounter, one of the man's roommates barged in and demanded that he stop, though the attacker ignored him.

More than 200 pages of documents showed no signs that police ever questioned anyone at the bar or requested surveillance footage. The bar had more than 30 cameras that could have shown how much the woman drank, if she interacted with Winston and whom she left with.

That footage disappeared a month later when the surveillance video overwrote itself.

"There was no reason for not getting on it straight away," said George Kirkham, a former Tallahassee police officer and an expert witness who has worked on more than 1,000 cases. He called what detectives might have discovered on those tapes "absolutely critical."

Police also seemed to quickly give up on finding the cab or its driver, though a specific company (Yellow Cab) was known to offer student discounts.

In a February report, Detective Scott Angulo wrote that "several" cabs equipped with FSU card swipes left the area of Potbelly's that night. Through email, he said, Yellow Cab drivers who worked that night were asked to come forward if they had picked up anyone meeting the description of those involved.

None of the drivers responded.

Back then, police also didn't look for the freshman football player named Chris. A simple review of the Seminoles' 2012 roster shows Chris Casher was the only true freshman on the team with that first name. Investigators later learned that Casher was Winston's roommate and had walked in on the sexual activity — in part to record it on his cellphone.

By the time investigators interviewed Casher in November, the recording had been deleted and the phone discarded.

"There are many, many things that should have been done," Kirkham said. "A lot of investigative failures … not a well-handled police investigation, I think."

Winston was not identified as a suspect until Jan. 10, when the woman recognized him in a class and called the detective. Police still didn't get his DNA until Nov. 14, after the State Attorney's Office began its own investigation. Winston declined to speak with investigators.

Police left the case open but deactivated it in February, and it wasn't reactivated until last month when media outlets requested the incident report.

Through Winston's attorney, Casher and another teammate, Ronald Darby, provided affidavits to prosecutors saying they saw the accuser have consensual sex with Winston. Those documents were delivered the day after State Attorney Willie Meggs launched his own investigation upon learning about the police investigation.

How much the woman cooperated with police is in dispute. Angulo wrote in February that the woman was unsure whether she wanted to press charges during their two interviews, while the family said through their attorney that they were available for interviews "at all times."

While such cases are nearly impossible to prosecute without a willing witness, experts said it's not uncommon for an accuser to express uncertainty soon after coming forward.

"You still have to do due diligence because you don't know what they're going to do," said St. Petersburg police Maj. Michael Kovacsev. Though he declined to speak about the Winston case, he addressed how his agency handles similar situations.

When someone accuses another person of a sex crime, but later decides not to pursue charges, Kovacsev instructs his officers in nearly every case to get that decision in writing.

He said it would have been "standard" for a detective to go to a bar where an accuser alleged that she had met her attacker.

It's also critical, Kovacsev said, to interview witnesses as soon as possible.

"If you don't get a hold of people in a timely manner, you afford them the opportunity to get their stories straight," he said.

Walker said he thought Tallahassee police's handling of the case was so flawed that it should trigger "some independent audits and investigations."

As one example, he pointed to the fact that Winston's attorney got statements from Casher and Darby before police did.

"Jameis' defense attorney has an obligation to give the best defense he can. If he gets there first, he gets there first," Walker said. "All that does is expose the incompetence of the Police Department."

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this report.

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