TALLAHASSEE -- The Seminole Nation has decided. Jameis Winston didn’t do it.
As state attorney Willie Meggs continues his investigation into rape charges against the standout Florida State University quarterback, Winston fans have parsed the evidence, outted the woman and derided her credibility on message boards, blogs and on Twitter.
Winston, who through his attorney has denied all wrongdoing, has not been charged with a crime, and Meggs said Monday that it is unlikely he will make a decision on Winston’s fate before the Thanksgiving holiday.
But the prospect that the redshirt freshman and Heisman Trophy candidate could be charged with a felony has so devastated many FSU football fans that they are determined to change the narrative.
“The Seminole Nation has been the biggest detective of all,” said Brandon Parks, a former FSU backup quarterback and 2010 graduate, before the Seminoles’ home game against Idaho on Saturday. Like many fans, he had uploaded a photo of a woman he considered Winston’s alleged accuser from one of many Internet sites.
“Here she is with him,” Parks said, pointing to a picture of a petite blonde standing, smiling, next to Winston, each stretching an arm around the other’s waist.
Winston towers over the woman. “How can you tell me she didn’t know his name?” Parks asks, referring to the police report that identified the suspect as “unknown” when the woman called police at 4 a.m. from an off-campus apartment last year.
But other websites circulated a different photo, of a different blonde woman, clearly much taller.
“This is her a week after the ‘alleged rape’ going out to some sorority Xmas thing,” writes the Terez Owens blog site. “This whole story reeks of lies and cover-ups.”
The allegations were the talk of pregame conversations throughout Tallahassee as fans packed the stadium for FSU’s home finale. Fans held signs that read “We still believe,” and greeted Winston with a standing ovation before the first play of the game.
Children and families ran to get his autograph and chanted his name: “Jame-is, Jame-is.” In the stadium gift shop, where Winston’s No. 5 is proudly displayed, every Winston jersey was sold out.
“Everyone thinks he’s innocent,” said Brooke Barbera, a sophomore from West Palm Beach. “I haven’t heard anyone think he’s not.”
She recited the questions about the timing of the accuser’s claim, suggesting that because she waited a month before identifying him to police, the accuser was a scorned lover seeking revenge.
“I’d never say some of the things out there on the Internet,” Barbera said. “It think it’s ugly. But I think she was angry. All the facts show it.”
The sentiment on behalf of Winston spans the generations.
Phil and Shirlee Maus are retirees and long-time Seminole boosters. They travel from Solivita, near Orlando, with friends and fellow FSU alumni for every home game.
“Having gone to college and been a fraternity member, I know things happen. Boys will be boys,” said Phil Maus, seated in his garnet lawn chair in the booster lot before the game.
“We find it hard to believe,” said his wife, Shirlee, who questions the timing of the allegations, which emerged just as the undefeated team was closing in on an invitation to play for its first college football championship in 14 years. “Is there a financial advantage for her now?"
FSU rules require that anyone charged with a felony be suspended from play. For Winston, that means he would likely have to sit out the Jan. 6 national championship game.
At a postgame news conference Saturday, neither Winston nor his coach made any reference to the swirling controversy. The talk centered on the 11-0 season, the four-touchdown game and the 80-point score.
“The football field is a sanctuary for me,” Winston agreed in response to a reporter’s question. “When everybody’s on the field, we’re zoned out and we focus.”
But many fans wonder if the mere allegation has already served to tarnish his name.
“Unless it is announced — and soon — that the accusation of sexual assault is a case of totally mistaken identity, Winston will suffer the weight of scandal,” wrote Gerald Ensley, a Tallahassee Democrat columnist and Heisman voter. “And it will end his Heisman chances even if he leads FSU to the national championship.”
The Heisman ballots were to be distributed on Monday and are not due until after the conference championship game on the weekend of Dec. 7.
Dec. 7 is also the one-year anniversary of when the Florida State University student called Tallahassee police at 4 a.m. to claim that she had been raped. It took another month before she identified the suspect, Jameis Winston, then a redshirt freshman who hadn’t yet become a college football celebrity.
Prosecutors learned of the case for the first time last week, for reasons that have yet to be explained.
The accuser hired Tampa attorney Patricia Carroll, who has told the media that Tallahassee police detective Scott Angulo told her in January that “Tallahassee is a big football town” and her client’s life would be made “miserable” if she pursued an allegation against Winston, a two-sport athlete who was preparing then for baseball season.
Only after the case emerged in the media this month did police obtain a DNA sample from Winston, which matched that found on the victim. Through his attorney, Tim Jansen, Winston has said they had consensual sex. Carroll countered: “The victim did not consent. This was rape.”
Some FSU fans are withholding judgment, but for many the lapse of time between the allegation and now has raised questions about the accuser’s credibility.
Doug Dunlap, a Seminole booster, wonders why it took so long for the tests on Winston to be done.
“If this was my daughter, I’d be pushing police about this once a week,” he said. “You’ve got to wonder about her motives.”
Nanci Newton, director of the Center for Victim Advocacy at the University of South Florida, is not surprised by the sentiment and vitriol aimed at the accuser.
One in four college women will be sexually assaulted while in college, she said, and college campuses are “a mirror of our larger society” that sees athletes as heroes and values men over women.
“When athletes are accused of rape, the victim is called all kinds of terrible names,” she said. “That is not a world that values women.”
Newton said she has never seen an accuser delay identifying a victim when a false claim was involved.
“In my experience, in the rare cases of false reports, the accuser will quickly name the suspect, not just give a description,” she said.
Caught in the middle is Meggs, the veteran Leon County prosecutor who has been accused on Internet sites of being both an FSU apologist and a grandstanding prosecutor. If he decides to file charges, can he get a fair trial?
“We’ve had some pretty sensational cases here in this jurisdiction over the last 30 years,” Meggs said. “I can only think of a couple times when we moved the trial.
“There are 250,000 people that live in this jurisdiction; 84,000 go to a football game; half of them are from out of town, and most of them stay only until halftime as we rout the competition,” he said. “I don’t think the size of the crowd at FSU football games is indicative of what our citizens are thinking.”