Thursday, January 18, 2018

Ruth: Major fumble by the Tally police

The Tallahassee Police Department might want to rethink its claim that it is committed to "a tradition of service since 1841" after its botched handling of a student sexual assault case.

It was almost a year ago when a Florida State University student from the Tampa Bay area reported to Tallahassee police that she had been sexually assaulted. Within a month, she identified her alleged assailant. But police reacted to a crime of violence as if the prime suspect in the caper had been a serial late returner of books to the FSU library.

That's because the suspect was none other than Mr. Johnny Football of Florida himself, FSU quarterback Jameis Winston, who has led the Seminoles to the cusp of a national gridiron title.

For both the sake of the woman and Winston, you would think the Tally coppers would have wanted to clear this up as soon as possible, either to quickly and professionally determine if the young woman was telling the truth and get a criminal off the streets; or find if a young, promising athlete being touted as a possible Heisman Trophy winner was either the victim of a cruel case of mistaken identity or a false claim of sexual assault. Winston's attorney on Thursday, after all, acknowledged that the pair had sex but claimed it was consensual. Real-life, dedicated police officers are supposed to get to the truth.

But that's not what happened in a place like Tallahassee, where unrestrained drooling over the FSU football team is considered a civic duty.

You don't need to be Inspector Morse to know that when a sexual assault is reported it is elementary for law enforcement to gather evidence, interview witnesses and examine the crime scene. And it is certainly true that in a small city like Tallahassee, a purported crime involving the city's star football player would attract national media attention.

But when the woman and her family heard precious little from the Tallahassee police, they retained lawyer Patricia Carroll, who has claimed she was told by Detective Scott Angulo that considering the city was a "big football town," the student was sure to have her life turned into a living hell if she pursued the case against Winston.

Put another way, a police officer who took an oath to protect and defend victims of crimes was suggesting that the fortunes of a multimillion-dollar, high-profile college football program followed by rabid fans trumped the blind pursuit of justice.

Carroll has accused Angulo and the Tallahassee police of refusing to collect Winston's DNA or interview possible key witnesses. The Tampa Bay Times found no search warrant for Winston or his reported place of residence in public records. But the good news is that so far in FSU's undefeated season, Jameis Winston has passed for nearly 3,000 yards, thrown 28 touchdowns and currently sports an impressive 195.6 quarterback rating.

Here's one more impressive statistic reported by ESPN: The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has confirmed that Winston's DNA matches the DNA obtained from a sexual assault kit test of the woman's underwear.

Tallahassee police have said the case stalled after the family stopped cooperating with detectives, an alibi the complainant's attorney denies. But if you thought a police agency was dragging its feet to protect the alleged assailant in the case, how comfortable would you be in thinking you could trust the badges to do the right thing?

Finally, Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs has gotten involved to sort out the mess created by the Tally Keystone Kops. Winston has not been charged. But the yearlong time-out by the Tallahassee police has hardly been in his interest if he is not guilty. If Winston is not charged or were to be acquitted, his reputation is still tainted, even more so by the perception that the police were trying to shield him. Goodbye, Heisman.

But if Winston is charged and found guilty, the Police Department in Florida's capital city will be perceived as an agency that failed in its duty to a victim and attempted to cover up a felony to protect the FSU football program.

And that should concern everyone, including Seminole fans.


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