The Florida State Seminoles would like to believe that old bromide about controlling their own destiny with two games left to play and a national championship bowl berth at stake. But it’s not that simple. Their tunnel vision has been blinded by the headlights of a runaway scandal on a collision course with the apex of college football season. Squinting harder than anyone is quarterback Jameis Winston.
Winston — and anyone who cares about FSU — is waiting to find out whether he will be charged with sexual assault. An investigation into the Dec. 7, 2012, incident involving Winston and a female student is nearly finished. Florida State athletes are prohibited from competing if they are charged with a felony.
The case — along with the Heisman bronze statue and the crystal national championship football — is in the hands of state attorney Willie Meggs. If he decides to prosecute, neither of those trophies will be coming to Tallahassee.
The one person you would not want to be if you were in Florida’s capital city is Meggs. He can’t win. Prosecute and he will be criticized by fervent fans and state power brokers for coming down unfairly on Winston in a year-old, he-said, she-said case just when the No. 2 Noles are poised to play for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship and against Alabama for the BCS national title.
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Winston, 19, is the Heisman Trophy favorite. Ballots for the Dec. 14 ceremony are out.
If Winston is charged, Alabama’s AJ McCarron leaps to front-runner and Winston, who may have already lost some votes, becomes persona non grata.
If Meggs decides not to prosecute, he will be criticized for giving a pass to yet another wayward athlete who is above the law, for promulgating the concept that celebrities are entitled to a different standard of justice. Meggs, a FSU graduate, will be called a good-ol’-boy who trampled the rights of a young woman whose voice echoes those of many who are sexually assaulted but never heard because they are silenced by the stigma of being a victim and the horrific, uphill battle of winning such a case.
Yet the one person you would want making this decision if you were Winston or the alleged victim is Meggs. He is 70 years old and serving his seventh and last term. The former police officer has dedicated his career to the state attorney’s office. He’s tangled with FSU sports stars before and has not bowed to the worship of them or former coach Bobby Bowden.
“It’s a damn hard job, but I’ve never seen Willie do a favor for the athletes or the school,” said attorney David McGee, who started with Meggs as an intern in 1975. “The political stuff rolls off his back. He’s a hard-headed son of a gun. He won’t care much because he’s not running for re-election again.
“You can’t be in that town and not get cases involving FSU athletes. They are 19-year-old boys feeling their oats. The biggest mistake is to listen to politicians or media or fans. You only listen to the cold, hard facts.”
The facts are still being sorted out, especially because Meggs inherited a case initially mishandled by Tallahassee police. The alleged victim called police at 4 a.m. and didn’t identify the suspect. A month later, when she did identify the suspect, why wasn’t a DNA sample taken? Why wasn’t Winston’s name added to the case file? Why did Winston’s lawyer think the case was dropped while the police say it was never closed, only rendered inactive in February when the alleged victim said she no longer wanted to pursue prosecution?
In a statement, the alleged victim’s family said her attorney, Patricia Carroll, was told by a detective that in “a big football town” the victim “needs to think long and hard before proceeding against him because she will be raked over the coals and her life will be made miserable.”
Not untrue, said McGee, who has prosecuted rape cases.
“It’s a disservice if you do not advise them up front how the victim’s morals and motives will be questioned even more than those of the accused,” he said. “These are often complicated scenarios. Sometimes, the people involved don’t even know what really happened because they had a bellyful of liquor. It’s a difficult process, and if you lose, it’s devastating.”
Based on what is known, including the 11-month lag time, DNA evidence that Winston will argue shows only consensual sex and two witnesses in his favor, the case does not appear to be provable beyond a reasonable doubt, McGee said.
“This one is a dog, and if I’m in the state attorney’s office, I don’t want it,” he said. “It’s a problematic, one-on-one case. Willie has to ask, ‘Can I win it?’ If he says no, it’s not ethical to take the case.”
Adding to the problematic nature, at one point she said she did not want to prosecute.
“And that was back when he was not ‘Famous Jameis,’” McGee said.
A year ago, Winston was a freshman backup. Today, he is the most dynamic college quarterback in the land. But his powers on the field are useless while he waits.