Thursday, December 14, 2017
Editorials

Editorial: Correct failures by FSU, police

From the start of the investigation into sexual assault allegations against Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston, there was clearly a bias toward football. Those in positions of authority, from the Tallahassee Police Department to FSU officials, botched or delayed their investigations, robbing both the accused and the accuser of justice and truth. Now a federal investigation into the university's apparent foot-dragging should thoroughly review how these kinds of cases are handled.

Like many date rape accusations, the one involving Winston appears to be a classic case of her word versus his. Winston and two teammates met the accuser at a Tallahassee bar. The woman rode in a cab with the men to an off-campus apartment. Their accounts differ from there. The accuser told police she was in a bedroom with one of the men, who undressed her and forced her to have sex. Winston, through his lawyer, has maintained that the sex was consensual. The two other men present backed up his story. The woman says her attacker took her home on his scooter. She later reported the incident to police and submitted to a rape kit. Initially, she could not identify her alleged assailant. But nearly a month later, she pointed to Winston.

It took Tallahassee police 11 months before they alerted Leon State Attorney Willie Meggs about the allegations, a move likely prompted by media scrutiny. Meggs conducted a separate investigation and ultimately found he did not have enough evidence to prosecute Winston. Separately, it appears Winston will not face charges in a Title IX investigation, a campus-based query that is required when such allegations surface on campuses that receive federal money. Title IX bans colleges and universities from discriminating on the basis of gender. Since 2011, that includes complaints of sexual assault, sexual harassment and other claims of sexual violence or misconduct. As the Tampa Bay Times' Matt Baker reported last week, FSU held a conduct hearing for Winston in January but did not inform the accuser. Winston was present but refused to testify.

Cases like this one with scant evidence that pit one person's word against another's are hard enough to sort out without the added layer of celebrity and legions of football fans. Winston and his accuser, who are forever scarred by the incident, never stood a chance of getting to the truth with a Tallahassee Police Department inclined to protect the FSU football team. Officers dutifully took reports, but they failed to be aggressive when it mattered most, in the early days of the investigation when they could have pulled security tapes, queried cab drivers and sought cellphone records and video from the other two men who were present in the apartment. This took place even before officers knew that the accused was Winston, who would win the Heisman Trophy and guide FSU to a national championship. Thirteen months later, the university followed with more shoddy investigating. At issue is the length of time it took officials to take on the case and whether the accuser has been able to have her say.

The actions of the university and the police send the wrong message to college students who may now be discouraged from reporting alleged crimes if they involve sports stars or other prominent people. Football and national titles are important, but not at the expense of fairness and justice. On these counts, FSU and the Tallahassee police have failed.

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