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FSU clears quarterback Jameis Winston of code of conduct violations

Florida State Seminoles quaterback Jameis Winston leaves his student conduct code hearing this month in Tallahassee. The hearing continued Wednesday morning. [Getty Images]
Florida State Seminoles quaterback Jameis Winston leaves his student conduct code hearing this month in Tallahassee. The hearing continued Wednesday morning. [Getty Images]
Published Dec. 22, 2014

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was cleared of four university conduct violations Sunday after a retired judge determined that 2-year-old sexual assault allegations amounted to a convoluted he-said, she-said case.

Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Major Harding wrote that Winston and his accuser provided contradictory stories of their December 2012 sexual encounter. Neither story was "substantially stronger" than the other

"Both have their own strengths and weaknesses," Harding wrote in a letter dated Friday and obtained Sunday by the Tampa Bay Times. "I cannot find with any confidence that the events as set forth by (Winston and the woman) or a particular combination thereof is more probable than not as required to find you responsible for a violation of the Code. Therein lies the determinative factor of my decision."

That decision, which was made official late Sunday afternoon, will have far-reaching consequences. It will keep FSU's starting quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner on the field for the Rose Bowl against Oregon, boosting the Seminoles' hopes of a second straight national championship.

It also, perhaps, brings a resolution to the most closely watched Title IX case in the country, almost two years after a then-FSU student from Pasco County accused Winston of rape. Winston has maintained that the sex was consensual.

Winston wasn't charged after the initial criminal investigation stalled or after last year's investigation by the State Attorney's Office, which cited the woman's "problematic" testimony.

But Title IX, the federal gender-equity law, requires the school to conduct its own investigation.

Harding reviewed more than 1,000 pages of documents and electronic records and listened to about 12 hours of testimony over a two-day hearing earlier this month. After all that, he ruled that he didn't have enough information to conclude it was "more probable than not" that Winston committed any of the four sexual conduct-related conduct violations he faced.

"After a thorough review, the evidence before me does not satisfy this threshold," Harding wrote to Winston, "and, therefore, you are not responsible for the aforementioned charged violations."

Harding's ruling doesn't necessarily end the case. The woman's attorneys, John Clune and Baine Kerr, said in a statement that they were "stunned and dismayed" by the order and wouldn't rule out an appeal, which must be made within five school days.

"It's not a 'decision' at all but a statement that the judge couldn't decide," Kerr and Clune said in a statement. "There are certainly glaring bases for appeal, but at some point we have to recognize that Florida State is never going to hold Jameis Winston responsible."

The case has drawn national attention as colleges across the country try to combat sexual assault. The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is investigating whether FSU complied with the law in how it handled the Winston case. Dozens of other schools are under similar inquiries.

Because of the high stakes and conflicting interests, FSU had Harding hear the case as a neutral observer at a rate of $450 per hour.

"The university selected Justice Major Harding, a highly qualified and respected jurist, to remove any doubt about the integrity of this process and the result," FSU president John Thrasher said in a statement. "He conducted a thorough Student Conduct Code hearing and reviewed more than 1,000 pages of evidence generated by three other investigations, and we would like to thank him sincerely for his service."

Winston didn't comment Sunday, after the ruling likely ended any threat to his eligibility at FSU.

He never missed a start because of the investigation and is 26-0 as the Seminoles' starting quarterback, heading into the national semifinal game on New Year's Day. Winston, a redshirt sophomore, is eligible to declare for the NFL draft after the season and is projected as a top-10 pick.

But lawsuits against Winston, FSU or the Tallahassee Police Department could keep the case from disappearing. Winston's adviser, Atlanta-based attorney David Cornwell, has said a lawsuit was the woman's ultimate goal and called the process a "shakedown."

Harding disagreed, saying he wasn't convinced the woman "intentionally fabricated an elaborate lie."

Instead, Harding was left with two versions of a 2-year-old encounter and no clear-cut evidence.

Changes in her story might have been caused by trauma, but he wasn't sure. The woman's bruises and vaginal redness could be explained by either consensual sex or an assault. She had been drinking but wasn't intoxicated or drugged.

"This was a complex case, and I worked hard to make sure both parties had a full and fair opportunity to present information," Harding wrote to Winston. "In sum, the preponderance of the evidence has not shown that you are responsible for any of the charged violations of the Code."

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.