Vaughan: Prosecutors decide case against Winston not strong enough

In the end, the memory lapses of a young woman who alleged she was sexually assaulted and the statements of two witnesses led state prosecutors to decide not to file any charges against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, the presumed favorite for the Heisman Trophy.

And with that announcement, made official Thursday afternoon, Winston can now turn his attention to Saturday’s ACC Championship Game, the announcement of Heisman balloting the following week, and – perhaps – a spot in the Jan. 6 BCS National Championship Game.

Winston, the redshirt freshman from Bessemer, Ala., who took college football by storm this fall, was the subject of an on-again, off-again investigation into an incident at an off-campus apartment last Dec. 7. Tallahassee police shelved the case in February, contending the woman who alleged she was raped didn’t want to press charges, then turned it over to state investigators in November after its existence became public.

The woman told police that she was out drinking with friends, accepted a shot of liquor from someone she didn’t know, then ended up in a cab and was taken to an apartment. There, she said, she blacked out several times as a young man took off her clothes and raped her.

She called police shortly after he drove her back to the area of her dorm on a scooter.

After three weeks of intense investigation, State Attorney Willie Meggs said he would not file charges in an announcement in a conference room outside his office jammed with more than 15 video cameras and more than 50 reporters, photographers and sound technicians, many of them wedged in around the lectern he stood behind.

“We have a duty as prosecutors to only file those charges if we have a reasonable likelihood of a conviction,” Meggs said. “After reviewing all of the information in this case, we did not feel that we could meet that burden.”

Winston, who faced the prospect of an immediate suspension from the team if he had been charged, was taking a test when the announcement was made, according to his attorney, Tim Jansen. Once he learned he had been cleared, he expressed relief.

In a brief statement handed out to reporters, Winston thanked his “family, friends, coaches and teammates for standing by me during a difficult time.”

“It has been difficult to stay silent through this process, but I never lost faith in the truth and in who I am,” Winston said in the statement. “I’m very relieved I’ll be able to continue my education at Florida State and I’m excited I can now get back to helping our team achieve its goals.”

Jansen had said two weeks ago that the encounter between Winston and the woman was consensual, and he reiterated that point again after Meggs made his decision public.

“We believed from day one in December this was a consensual act between Mr. Winston and this young woman,” Jansen said outside the courthouse after Meggs’ announcement. “We were confident. He was confident.”

The young woman, herself a Florida State student, has previously alleged that there was nothing consensual about the encounter, using the word “rape” to describe it.

In a statement issued through her attorney, Patricia Carroll, she thanked Meggs for his work and criticized Tallahassee police for the “inordinate delay” in investigating her report.

“The victim,” the statement said, “has grave concerns that her experience, as it unfolded in the public eye and through social media, will discourage other victims of rape from coming forward and reporting.”

In her initial contact with police, the woman told investigators that she had gone out drinking with friends, and that she accepted a shot from someone she did not know. She told the officers she found herself in a cab with a man she could not recall meeting, then was taken to an apartment.

There, she said, he disrobed her and sexually assaulted her despite the fact “she was telling the suspect to stop” and that “she was trying to kick the suspect off of her but was unable to.”

She also said her arms were pinned down.

The woman told police she did not remember dressing herself but that she later got on a scooter driven by the man and was dropped off near her dorm.

She called police immediately.

About five weeks later, she called police back and identified Winston as her attacker after seeing him in one of her classes. When police contacted Winston’s lawyer, Jansen said he would not consent to an interview.

In February, the investigation was shelved because, Tallahassee police officials have asserted, the woman did not want to press charges. The woman’s attorney, however, has since asserted that is not the case and has accused a detective of pressuring her not to file charges by telling her Tallahassee was a big football town and she should be prepared to be the object of much scrutiny if she went forward.

Then, in November, several news organizations requested the report on the incident, and Tallahassee police turned the case over to Meggs. He reopened the investigation.

A DNA test linked Winston to evidence collected from the women’s clothing.

But despite that match, Meggs said it boiled down to a case with conflicting stories from the two people involved. He said he was sure a “sexual event” occurred – but not whether there was consent or force involved. And there were other questions that would have made a case difficult to prosecute:

* Lab tests found DNA from the woman’s then-boyfriend on her clothing, which could have been problematic in a courtroom.

* It was impossible to determine exactly how intoxicated the woman was at the time of the incident. A blood test administered several hours after she called police found she had a blood-alcohol level of .048 – above the level at which a motorist would be considered impaired in some states but not Florida. Investigators attempted to do a reverse extrapolation to determine her blood-alcohol level around the time of the incident and concluded it would have been around .10 – above the limit at which a motorist is considered intoxicated in Florida.

* Two witnesses – both friends of Winston’s – provided statements saying they saw part of the sexual encounter and that it appeared consensual. They also said the woman did not appear to be intoxicated.

There was also the most delicate issue that prosecutors face in sexual assault cases – what kind of witness would she be. Meggs was asked if she was willing to testify.

In 29 years as state attorney, he said, no victim of an alleged sexual assault relished the idea of testifying. Still, he indicated that holes in the woman’s memory were a problem and that she felt conflict about what to do.

“Her recall of the events of that night have been moving around a good bit,” Meggs said. “There have been some memory lapses. … They were problematic. It’s not inconsistencies – it’s memory loss.”

Asked if she was forthcoming, he replied, “I think she was somewhat torn and wasn’t real sure about a lot of things. I think she was forthcoming as much as she felt like she could, wanting to protect her family, her own self, her name.”

When he met with a gaggle of reporters outside the courthouse, Winston’s lawyer returned again and again to the argument that what occurred was consensual.

“Clearly, the young woman and Jameis consented to whatever act took place,” the lawyer, Jansen, said.

Asked why she would have reported an assault if it was consensual, he answered, “I think sometimes you have regret; sometimes you have embarrassment.”

“He’s a college student,” Jansen said, “and I’m sure you all know that college students engage in sexual activities. One-night stands happen.”

Jansen also raised the specter that the legal wrangling might not be over – and that it might be Winston who takes action, in the form of a civil suit against the woman.

“His reputation is important to him,” Jansen said. “His career is important to him. … He did nothing wrong. If he did nothing wrong, and someone accused him of rape – he was falsely accused.”