In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Did football trump justice in FSU rape case?

Simple incompetence? Maybe that explains the Tallahassee Police Department's shoddy, dithering, half-hearted investigation of rape allegations against Jameis Winston.

But when this particular strain of incompetence conveniently coincides with the interests of a college football program on track to win a national championship, it smells like something more.

A damning investigation published Wednesday by The New York Times “found that there was virtually no investigation at all, either by the police or the university” after a Florida State University student told campus and city police on Dec. 7, 2012, that she had been raped. Later, she identified her assailant as the FSU star athlete.

The Times reported that Tallahassee police failed to pursue fundamental leads in the case. Or else they procrastinated until it was too late. Until key evidence that could have proved or disproved the allegations had disappeared. Until the police investigation began to look like willful negligence.

It didn't help that the investigator behind this suspicious mess had done private security work for the all-powerful Seminole Boosters, the nonprofit group that funds those multimillion-dollar coaching salaries, among other endeavors around FSU sports.

The Times reiterated earlier news reports that the university administration waited for months, until the glorious championship football season was over, before fulfilling its obligations under federal Title IX laws to investigate the sexual assault complaints.

Three years ago, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights sent a letter to college administrators warning that “Conduct may constitute unlawful sexual harassment under Title IX even if the police do not have sufficient evidence of a criminal violation. In addition, a criminal investigation into allegations of sexual violence does not relieve the school of its duty under Title IX to resolve complaints promptly and equitably.”

Federal law does not give special leniency to college football programs in pursuit of a perfect season. “Promptly” does not mean waiting until after the national championship game.

None of this says that Jameis Winston was guilty of rape. Nor does it say that the young woman who made the accusations was lying. The substandard investigation doesn't reveal a damn thing about what happened on Dec. 7, 2012. Not anything reliable.

If Winston told the truth, that the sex was consensual, then the half-assed police work was unfair to him. If his accuser was telling the truth, then it only added to the miseries of a woman who was denigrated and threatened on social media as a set of mindless fans went all out to demonstrate the warped ethics spawned by big-time college sports. (Women who’ve made similar accusations against pro athletes don't seem to face this kind of public backlash.)

The Times’ investigation found that police frittered away opportunities to prove or disprove the allegations. The accuser was left dangling before an angry mob. Winston could not quite escape the lingering suspicion.

Of course, some folks around Tallahassee will question the accuracy of the Times story. But they'll have trouble dismissing veteran investigative reporter Walt Bogdanich as a hack, with his three Pulitzer Prizes, his past reporting into the unfettered distribution of counterfeit medicines, the dangerous lack of standards among compounding pharmacies, deadly railway negligence, the ghastly doping of race and show horses and widespread police misconduct in investigating domestic-abuse cases involving their own officers.

Bogdanich reported that Tallahassee police didn't bother obtaining video footage from the bar (with 30 security cameras) where Winston allegedly hooked up with the woman. Nor did the officer make much of an attempt to find the taxi driver who drove them to an off-campus apartment. He didn't obtain the cellphone video from a roommate who said he shot a few moments of the sexual encounter. He didn't confiscate the phone.

The detective waited two weeks before trying to interview Winston, and then tried to do that by telephone rather than in person. He failed to subpoena the cellphone records of Winston or his companions that night. Months passed before anyone thought to get a DNA sample from Winston (which matched the semen found on his accuser). The detective waited two months to write a report.

As State Attorney Willie Meggs told the Times, “They just missed all the basic fundamental stuff that you are supposed to do.”

Again, none of this says anything about guilt or innocence, truth or lies. Nor does this reporting prove that the Tallahassee cops gave preferential treatment to an FSU athlete. In fact, Bogdanich found another recent FSU rape allegation, nothing to do with an athlete, that the TPD treated just as dismissively.

So maybe the shoddiness of the Winston investigation was just a suspicious coincidence. Maybe the uninterested police work and the tardy university response had nothing to do with a sacred regard for college athletics in Tallahassee.

Maybe they just shrug off rape allegations in a rowdy college town as mostly the unreliable complaints of carousing young women.

Maybe none of this unseemly mess had anything to do with football trumping justice. It’s possible. Maybe.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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