Inquiry Unveils Botched Investigation in Florida State Rape Case Involving Jameis Winston

Florida State University students at Potbelly’s, where a student had been drinking on the night she said she was raped. (Leslye Davis/The New York Times)
Florida State University students at Potbelly’s, where a student had been drinking on the night she said she was raped. (Leslye Davis/The New York Times)

Early on the morning of Dec. 7, 2012, a freshman at Florida State University reported that she had been raped by a stranger somewhere off campus after a night of drinking at a popular Tallahassee bar called Potbelly’s.

As she gave her account to the police, several bruises began to appear, indicating recent trauma. Tests would later find semen on her underwear.

For nearly a year, the events of that evening remained a well-kept secret until the woman’s allegations burst into the open, roiling the university and threatening a prized asset: Jameis Winston, one of the marquee names of college football.

Three weeks after Mr. Winston was publicly identified as the suspect, the storm had passed. The local prosecutor announced that he lacked the evidence to charge Mr. Winston with rape. The quarterback would go on to win the Heisman Trophy and lead Florida State to the national championship.

In his announcement, the prosecutor, William N. Meggs, acknowledged a number of shortcomings in the police investigation. In fact, an examination by The New York Times has found that there was virtually no investigation at all, either by the police or the university.

The police 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. After the accuser identified Mr. Winston as her assailant, the police did not even attempt to interview him for nearly two weeks and never obtained his DNA.

The detective handling the case waited two months to write his first report and then prematurely suspended his inquiry without informing the accuser. By the time the prosecutor got the case, important evidence had disappeared, including the video of the sexual act.

“They just missed all the basic fundamental stuff that you are supposed to do,” Mr. Meggs said in a recent interview. Even so, he cautioned, a better investigation might have yielded the same result.

The case has unfolded as colleges and universities across the country are facing rising criticism over how they deal with sexual assault, as well as questions about whether athletes sometimes receive preferential treatment. The Times’s examination — based on police and university records, as well as interviews with people close to the case, including lawyers and sexual assault experts — found that, in the Winston case, Florida State did little to determine what had happened.

University administrators, in apparent violation of federal law, did not promptly investigate either the rape accusation or the witness’s admission that he had videotaped part of the encounter.

Records show that Florida State’s athletic department knew about the rape accusation early on, in January 2013, when the assistant athletic director called the police to inquire about the case. Even so, the university did nothing about it, allowing Mr. Winston to play the full season without having to answer any questions. After the championship game, in January 2014, university officials asked Mr. Winston to discuss the case, but he declined on advice of his lawyer.

When The Times asked Mr. Winston for an interview, an Atlanta lawyer advising his family, David Cornwell, responded, “We don’t need an investigation, thorough or otherwise, to know that Jameis did not sexually assault this young lady.” Mr. Cornwell, who has represented major sports figures and the N.F.L., added, “Jameis has never sexually assaulted anybody.”

Mr. Winston has previously acknowledged having sex with his accuser but said it was consensual. His account has been supported by two friends from the football team who were with him that night, Chris Casher, who took the video, and Ronald Darby.

A month before the rape accusation became public, the university’s victim advocate learned that a second woman had sought counseling after a sexual encounter with Mr. Winston, according to the prosecutor’s office. The woman did not call it rape — she did not say “no.” But the encounter, not previously reported, “was of such a nature that she felt violated or felt that she needed to seek some type of counseling for her emotions about the experience,” according to Georgia Cappleman, the chief assistant state attorney, who said she had spoken with the advocate but not with the woman.

The victim advocate was concerned enough about the episode to have alerted Mr. Winston’s first accuser.

Ms. Cappleman said that based on what she was told, a crime had not been committed. Nonetheless, Ms. Cappleman said she found the encounter troubling, because it “sheds some light on the way Mr. Winston operates” and on what may be “a recurring problem rather than some type of misunderstanding that occurred in an isolated situation.”

Mr. Cornwell called her comments “out of bounds,” adding, “I’m not interested in a prosecutor expressing an opinion based on a personal moral compass.”

The university, after initially speaking with The Times, recently stopped doing so. A university spokeswoman, Browning Brooks, said she could not discuss specific cases because of privacy laws but issued a statement, saying that the university’s “code of conduct process has worked well for the vast majority of sexual assault cases” and has “provided victims with the emotional and procedural help they need.”

On Feb. 13, before the university stopped granting interviews, Rachel Bukanc, an assistant dean who oversees student conduct issues, said she knew of no student who had secretly videotaped sex. After The Times questioned that response, the university began an inquiry and recently charged Mr. Casher with a student-code violation for taking the video. Mr. Darby has also been cited in connection with the episode.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of football to Florida State and its hometown. In Tallahassee, rooting for the Seminoles is a matter of identity and economy. The 2013 championship season generated millions of dollars for the athletic department and city businesses, and favorable publicity beyond measure.

Patricia A. Carroll, a lawyer for Mr. Winston’s accuser, said the police investigator who handled the case, Scott Angulo, told her that because Tallahassee was a big football town, her client would be “raked over the coals” if she pursued the case.

Officer Angulo has done private security work for the Seminole Boosters, a nonprofit organization, with nearly $150 million in assets, that is the primary financier of Florida State athletics, according to records and a lawyer for the boosters. It also paid roughly a quarter of the $602,000 salary of the university president, Eric Barron, who was recently named president of Penn State.

The Tallahassee police declined to make Officer Angulo available for an interview, but his report states that he suspended the investigation because the accuser was uncooperative, which she denies.

The department issued a statement, saying that police reports in the Winston case “document that our department took the case seriously, processed evidence and conducted a thorough investigation based on information available when the case was reported.”

The case came at a time of turmoil for the Tallahassee police. In March 2013, a grand jury investigating police misconduct in an unrelated matter called police supervision “careless, uncaring, cavalier and incompetent.” The grand jury said supervisory deficiencies were so deeply ingrained that the city police, which has more than 350 sworn officers, should merge with the sheriff’s department, with the sheriff assuming overall control.

Late last year, Mr. Winston’s accuser and another Florida State student filed internal-affairs complaints, charging that Tallahassee police officers had investigated them, rather than the accused, and then prematurely dropped their cases.

“My attorney’s repeated calls to Tallahassee Police Department prove that I had not dropped the case,” Mr. Winston’s accuser wrote in her Dec. 19 complaint.

Two days earlier, the other student had written, “Why did the detective insist my case was closed and refused to answer calls and emails?” She added, “I am SO ANGRY!”

Both complaints were quickly dismissed.

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SOURCE: WALT BOGDANICH 
The New York Times

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