Jameis Winston cleared in Florida State code-of-conduct hearing

Quarterback Jameis Winston will not face code-of-conduct discipline from Florida State University.

Jeremy Brevard/Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

A retired Florida Supreme Court judge has cleared Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston in a 2012 incident during which a woman accused him of raping her at his off-campus apartment – concluding the former Heisman Trophy winner was guilty of no wrongdoing, FOX Sports has learned.

The retired judge, Major Harding, decided there was not sufficient evidence to conclude Winston committed either sexual misconduct or endangerment under Florida State’s student code of conduct, according to a copy of his decision letter, which was obtained by FOX Sports.

Although the decision can be appealed, it paves the way for Winston to lead Florida State into the team’s Jan. 1 playoff game against Oregon in the Rose Bowl.

“This was a complex case, and I worked hard to make sure both parties had a full and fair opportunity to present information,” Judge Harding wrote in his decision, a copy of which was obtained by FOX Sports on Sunday afternoon. “In sum, the preponderance of the evidence has not shown that you are responsible for any of the charged violations of the code. Namely, I find that the evidence before me is insufficient to satisfy the burden of proof.”

The decision – which came in the wake of two days of closed-door hearings earlier this month – likely ends one aspect of the saga that has enveloped Winston since November 2013. It was at that point that the then-dormant criminal investigation became public. That’s because even though the woman has the right to appeal the decision it is unlikely university administrators would overturn the decision made by Harding.

The woman is expected to file a civil suit, however – and could go after the university, Winston and even, possibly, the local police department for its handling of the criminal investigation.

Baine Kerr, one of the woman’s attorneys who advised her at the hearing, issued a statement questioning the judge’s decision.

“We are stunned and dismayed by the order,” the statement said. “It’s not a ‘decision’ at all but a statement that the judge couldn’t decide. Of the four people in that apartment only one, our client, testified, and she answered any and all questions about what happened. The three football players, Jameis Winston, Chris Casher, and Ronald Darby, all refused to testify and answer questions and somehow Jameis Winston still wins.  The order doesn’t even follow the student conduct code, and it ignores the bulk of the evidence.

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“There are certainly glaring bases for appeal, but at some point we have to recognize that Florida State is never going to hold James Winston responsible.  We will consider an appeal, but right now we feel a little duped.”

David Cornwell, the attorney who advised Winston during the hearing, did not respond to a request for comment from FOX Sports.

Casher and Darby both signed sworn statements in which they asserted they saw a portion of sexual encounter and that it appeared to be consensual.

The decision came in the wake of nearly 13 hours of testimony, taken Dec. 2 and 3 in Tallahassee, that focused on Dec. 7, 2012, incident in which a then-18-year-old woman alleged that Winston, now the face of Florida State’s football team, raped her.

Although he was not charged with a crime – his attorneys have described the incident as a consensual sexual encounter – the school conducted its own inquiry as required by the federal gender-equity law known as Title IX, then brought in Harding as an independent arbiter.

In his five-page decision letter, Harding noted that the university had charged Winston with four possible violations of the school’s conduct code – two alleging sexual misconduct, and two alleging endangerment.

“The burden of proof in all cases under the code is the preponderance of the evidence and rests with the university,” Harding wrote. “Stated another way, the evidence must show that it is more probable than not that you are responsible for the charged violations. After a thorough review, the evidence before me does not satisfy this threshold and, therefore, you are not responsible for the aforementioned charged violations.”

Harding said in the letter he considered more than 1,000 pages of documents as well as other “electronically stored” data and testimony of multiple witnesses.

About the only part of the evening that wasn’t disputed, the note wrote, was that Winston and the woman had sex.

“The focal point, however, is whether that and/or other sexual activity was consensual; whether you engaged in sexual conduct that created an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment; or whether you engaged in physical violence or other conduct which endangered another person,” Harding wrote.

The woman told police that she’d gone out drinking with friends at a popular Tallahassee nightspot, Potbelly’s, that someone she did not know bought her a shot, and that she ended up in a cab with several people and was taken to an apartment where the alleged assault occurred.

Harding concluded that when the woman got into the cab that the area was “active with other student, bar security, and cabs at that time.” She testified that she was intimidated and scared, according to Harding’s letter, and that’s why she got into the cab.

But the former judge also said the woman “did not identify any evidence that you acted in a manner that would reasonably justify her developing such beliefs. The evidence is undisputed that people were present, but (the accuser) did not seek help.”

Harding pointed out that the woman’s statements "have changed over time, but one point on which she has remained steadfast is that once in your room you had sexual intercourse with her and that she did not consent to or actively participate in the sexual intercourse. (The accuser) stated that she told you no and/or to stop and that Mr. Darby, who she identified by his dreadlocks, came into the room and told to you stop as well. She stated that you subsequently carried her into your bathroom, locked the door, and proceeded to continue intercourse against her will.”

The judge found that the testimony of the nurse who examined the woman at the hospital was “inconclusive.”

“As summarized in the preceding paragraphs, the evidence regarding the events that unfolded between you and (the accuser) once in your room is irreconcilable,” the judge wrote. “In light of all the circumstances, I do not find the credibility of one story substantially stronger than that of the other. Both have their own strengths and weaknesses. I cannot find with any confidence that the events as set forth by you, (the accuser), or a particular combination thereof is more probable than not as required to find you responsible for a violation of the code. Therein lies the determinative factor of my decision.”

Harding also rejected assertions from Winston and his attorney that the woman “intentionally fabricated an elaborate lie.”

A code-of-conduct hearing is a very different procedure with a lower threshold of proof than exists in criminal courts. It also has an unusual format. For instance, although the woman was in a different room and connected to the main hearing by a telephone, she had the right to pose questions to Winston, and he had the same right to pose questions to her. Questions were written down on a piece of paper and read aloud by someone else.

With the matter resolved insofar as his school is concerned, Winston will continue preparing for what likely will be his final game at FSU before entering the NFL Draft.

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Florida State is ranked No. 3 in the four-team football playoff and will face No. 2 Oregon. The winner will secure a spot in the Jan. 12 championship game, to be held at AT&T Stadium in Dallas against the winner of the Alabama-Ohio State Sugar Bowl matchup.

Even as the investigation of Winston has been under way, Florida State itself has been the subject of an ongoing federal investigation into its handling of the allegation against the quarterback, who has led the team to an undefeated season and its second straight Atlantic Coast Conference championship after winning the national title a year ago. That investigation is being conducted under Title IX, which requires colleges and universities that receive federal money to promptly investigate allegations of sexual assault.

The woman called police early the morning of Dec. 7, 2012, to report that she’d been sexually assaulted.

The rape allegation was investigated and then shelved by Tallahassee police in early 2013 amid assertions that the woman was uncooperative – something her attorneys have disputed. State Attorney Willie Meggs revived the case in November 2013 after his office learned of the woman’s allegations – and his investigation was carried out as Winston was marching the Seminoles to an undefeated season and the team’s first national championship since 1999.

Meggs ultimately concluded that there was not enough evidence to file criminal charges.

Title IX, however, requires that schools investigate alleged sexual assaults irrespective of whether criminal charges are filed – and that led school administrators to attempt to interview Winston last January and then to interview the woman in August. Following that investigation, school administrators notified Winston in October that he faced four potential violations of the Florida State student code of conduct.

Both Winston and the woman have the right to appeal Harding’s decision – a move that must be taken within five days. If either side – or both of them – does appeal, the case will go to the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities.

Appeals, however, can be based only on five narrow subjects:

— That there were due process errors that involve “violations of a charge student’s fundamental due process rights … or a complainant’s rights … that substantially affected the outcome of the initial hearing.”

— That there was “demonstrated prejudice against any party by the person presiding over the hearing …”

— That there is newly discovered information that is “relevant” and that it “was not reasonably available at the time of the original hearing and that would have substantially affected the outcome of the original hearing.”

— That the sanction recommended is “extraordinarily disproportionate to the violation committed.”

— That the “preponderance of the evidence presented at the hearing does not support the finding with regard to responsibility.” In such cases, an appeal would be “limited solely to a review of the record of the first-level hearing, except newly discovered evidence … may also be considered.”

An administrator designated by the school would consider the appeal. The administrator, referred to as an “appellate officer” in Florida State’s student conduct code, has the power to recommend that the initial decision be affirmed, modified or reversed or order that a new hearing be held.

The appellate officer’s recommendation goes to the university’s vice president or designee. If an appeal hearing is heard, the final decision is due within 15 class days of that hearing.