Florida State University

Jameis Winston under legal cloud as he leads unbeaten Florida State Seminoles

Quarterback Jameis Winston of the Florida State Seminoles warms up prior to the game against the Virginia Cavaliers at Doak Campbell Stadium on Nov. 8, 2014, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Quarterback Jameis Winston of the Florida State Seminoles warms up prior to the game against the Virginia Cavaliers at Doak Campbell Stadium on Nov. 8, 2014, in Tallahassee, Fla. Getty Images

Jameis Winston, the Florida State quarterback who seems to find trouble as often as he finds receivers in the end zone, will likely remain a Seminole long enough to finish his team’s campaign for a second national title in a row.

But the rape accusation that nearly imploded Winston’s Heisman Trophy candidacy and FSU’s title hopes a year ago has not gone away and has pulled Winston, the university and the Tallahassee police department into a spiral of investigations with ramifications that could further damage the reputations of all involved in the case.

Winston will lead the undefeated, No.2-ranked Seminoles against the University of Miami on Saturday night in the next chapter of the long-time rivalry. He faced a Student Code of Conduct disciplinary hearing on sexual assault charges on Monday, but the hearing was postponed earlier this week until Dec.1, and the timing of school calendar dates means he would not receive any punishment until after the Jan.12 championship game.

Winston, a sophomore, is expected to declare himself ready for the 2015 NFL Draft, which could render any penalties, including expulsion from FSU, moot.

But the hearing, even if delayed, still carries risk for Winston. His accuser is planning to testify about what happened on Dec.2, 2012, when she says after a night of drinking at Potbelly’s, she went to Winston’s apartment, where he raped her while two teammates watched through the bedroom doorway. Florida State, criticized for its slow response to the allegations, is under investigation by the U.S. Office of Civil Rights and under pressure to conduct a thorough hearing.

Winston, who does not have to testify, has said the sex was consensual. He was not charged after District Attorney Willie Meggs re-opened what he described as a botched investigation by Tallahassee police and decided a year after the incident that there was insufficient evidence and “memory lapses” by the accuser.

Any testimony or evidence from the FSU hearing could be used in a civil lawsuit expected to be filed by the accuser against Winston, the university and the police department. John Clune, her attorney, sued Kobe Bryant in civil court in his rape case, has handled rape cases at Harvard and Stanford, is pursuing rape cases involving basketball players at Oregon and Tulsa, and sued the University of Colorado in a rape case involving two football players that resulted in the resignations of the school’s president and athletic director and a $2.5million settlement.

“When I was a prosecutor I became passionate about stopping violence against women,” said Clune, who has made campus sexual assault cases a specialty of his Boulder, Colorado, practice. “It’s become an epidemic at our educational institutions.”

Winston’s attorney, David Cornwell, is a sports agent and former counsel for the NFL and Upper Deck, the trading card company, and has represented athletes Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun and Ben Roethlisberger.

Cornwell has been criticized for Tweeting out the accuser’s name, which was re-Tweeted hundreds of times. He maintains he did nothing wrong, concurring with FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, who said, “There is no victim because there was no crime.”

To Clune, Cornwell’s breaking of the convention that protects the identities of alleged sexual assault victims is a form of harassment.

“It does not benefit Mr. Winston, it’s only an irresponsible attempt to intimidate a young woman,” Clune said. “He’s not going to chase away my client, but it’s disappointing to see because it discourages other women from reporting sexual assault when they hear about men retaliating against women who do report.”

Clune said his client had to transfer to another school because of the hostility she felt after her name was revealed in abusive and threatening Internet posts.

“I’m constantly impressed with her resolve to go forward with the case,” Clune said. “She has picked herself up and is pursuing her studies and personal goals, but it was really unfortunate she had to leave FSU, which is where she wanted to be.”

Cornwell has implied that the accuser is out for money from a future NFL star and that she tried to settle the case for $7million. Clune denied it and said Cornwell was the one talking settlement.

For now, the hearing is a go, but Cornwell might seek an injunction or protest that Winston’s due process rights would be violated under the code of conduct format. FSU has hired retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Major Harding to oversee the proceedings, which are usually run by a panel of students and faculty. Harding can find him guilty on a “preponderance of evidence” rather than the stricter criminal trial standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

“It would not be in the best interests of Winston — a 20-year-old college student with a record of immaturity — to testify at the hearing unless he’s coached into the best performance of his life,” said Daniel Wallach, a sports litigator with Becker and Poliakoff in Fort Lauderdale. “However, I don’t think it’s a fait accompli that this hearing will ever take place. If it does, it could be merely a show trial to demonstrate that FSU finally did something after sitting on its hands for two years, but then no ruling comes until after the quarterback has played his last game.”

Under the code of conduct, FSU had authority to suspend Winston from the football team. He faces four charges of sexual misconduct and endangering a fellow student.

“If ever a situation would justify disciplining a student, this was one,” Wallach said. “But football trumps everything.”

Winston was suspended by Fisher for the Clemson game after Winston stood on a table inside the student union yelling a vulgar sexual reference that had become a popular Internet meme. Winston also got caught stealing crab legs from Publix and pouring soda into a water cup at Burger King. As a freshman he was stopped by police for carrying a BB gun, then later damaged his apartment complex in a BB gun fight with friends. FSU is investigating whether Winston received improper payments for 2,000 autographs; he said he signed for free. Winston was a magnet for controversy again earlier this month when his name was mentioned in a gambler’s allegations of a point-shaving scheme against Louisville.

Even with scandals engulfing him like blitzing linebackers, Winston has played remarkably clutch football, rescuing his team in close games and keeping FSU in the College Football Playoff mix.

The university and the Tallahassee police department haven’t had touchdown heroics to bail them out. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating whether FSU violated Title IX in its handling of the alleged victim’s accusations. Schools are required to investigate if they know about the occurrence of any form of sexual harassment and are urged to resolve cases within 60 days. The accuser first reported the alleged rape to Tallahassee police at 3:30 a.m. on Dec. 7, 2012. It wasn’t publicly known until November, 2013. FSU didn’t open its investigation into Winston’s conduct until September, 2014.

The accuser, with the expertise of Clune, is among a growing number of students seeking Title IX recourse in campus assault cases that are difficult to prove in court because of the question of consent.

“If a woman says, ‘I want to make sure this doesn’t happen to another student,’ suing the school is the way to make it happen, and there are now about 85 cases under investigation,” said Erin Buzuvis, law professor at Western New England University and co-founder of the Title IX Blog.

Clune said the end result for universities is implementation of awareness, prevention and treatment programs.

“Schools struggle with sexual violence issues, especially those with powerful athletic departments,” he said. “Although the process can be extremely painful, by the end they’ve taken steps to enforce a different mentality.”

The Tallahassee police department — which Meggs said failed to take even the most elementary steps in prompt evidence collection in the Winston case — came under fire again Friday in a New York Times report that said an Oct. 5 hit-and-run car accident caused by football player P.J. Williams was reduced by officers to two traffic tickets.

One of Williams’ passengers who also fled the scene was cornerback Ronald Darby, who was tried in a May 20 student conduct code hearing with teammate Chris Casher for their roles in the Winston case. They were in the apartment and witnessed part of the encounter between Winston and his accuser – Casher even recorded it on his phone, but later deleted it. Casher got one year of campus probation and Darby was cleared.

Like Winston, both are on the roster for Saturday’s game.

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