Travis: Winston case is closed, but questions about process remain

FSU QB Jameis Winston will not be charged with sexual assault, the state attorney announced Thursday.

Melina Vastola/Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

Ultimately, the Jameis Winston case boiled down to the credibility of the alleged victim’s claims of rape against the sworn statements of Winston’s two friends that the sex acts were consensual.

The alleged victim said she was raped by a man she did not know. She submitted to a rape test and contacted authorities within hours of what she believed was a sexual assault. A month later she realized who her assailant was and informed authorities. But her story was not ironclad and her recollections were spotty. Her one consistent theme was this: She maintained for nearly a year she was raped, since the Dec. 7, 2012 encounter with Winston.

Winston, on the other hand, never spoke to authorities when they asked for his side of the story. Instead his defense team proferred two afffidavits from friends who claimed to have witnessed a consensual sexual encounter between the woman and Winston in the bedroom of Winston’s apartment.

Those two friends asserted that they’d seen a consensual sexual relationship through the bedroom door, which didn’t lock. They also said the alleged victim had been a willing participant in the trip back to Winston’s apartment and that she hadn’t been too drunk to consent to sexual activity.

Those stories contradicted what the victim told police, that she’d passed out in Winston’s apartment, refused consent and been sexually assaulted in both the bedroom and the bathroom.

You can read the 86-page investigative report – much of which is duplicative – at this link here.

The line between rape and consensual sex, from a legal perspective, is often not clear cut. While we all prefer to imagine there are no gray areas in such cases — that it’s easy to determine whether or not a rape occurred — the reality is frequently much different. Sexual assault cases are notoriously difficult to investigate, prosecute and resolve.

Especially since any defendant must be proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Indeed, there was enough conflicting evidence in this case that authorities said it did not meet the standard to justify charges against Winston. That standard — a reasonable likelihood of conviction — was not met in this case, according to state attorney Willie Meggs. That was the most important takeaway of a rambling, often oddly and inappropriately humorous press conference sojourn into the particulars of the case.

Meggs, who sucked on a candy and appeared jocular throughout what should have been a serious press conference, was asked if the lack of charges represented vindication for Winston. He declined to say so, suggesting that we read the report and draw our own conclusions.

After reading the report it’s fair to say this case dwelt in a legal gray area, somewhere between a rape and consensual sex, not enough to say a rape occurred and not enough to say a rape didn’t occur either.

Absent new evidence – and in this case it’s hard to think of what could emerge if you read the investigative report – the criminal proceeding is over.

But we’re still left with quite a few questions. Let’s examine them. 

1. So what now?

Winston wasn’t charged with a crime, and he won’t be.

Winston’s accuser, however, has three more years to file a civil lawsuit seeking monetary damages for the alleged assault.

If she elects to file a lawsuit, the standard of proof in a civil lawsuit is a preponderance of the evidence. That is, instead of the high burden of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal trial, the woman would just have to establish that it was more likely than not that Winston raped her.

In a civil lawsuit the woman would be seeking monetary damages for Winston’s tortious misbehavior.

It’s also possible — even likely — that no civil case ever will be filed and the two parties will enter into a settlement negotiations. Such a settlement would come with a confidentiality provision that forbids the woman from discussing the case or its outcome in exchange for payment. 

But, again, that’s a civil remedy, one that’s distinct from the criminal court. 

2. Will there be any charges filed against the woman for making a false accusation?

No.

That’s significant because it demonstrates that state attorney Meggs found her statement credible enough that, at the very least, he couldn’t prove she made it up. 

Meggs couldn’t prove the alleged victim here was lying any more than he could prove that Winston raped her. 

3. Were the Tallahassee police at fault?

Meggs tiptoed around direct criticism of the police while stating on multiple occasions that he wished the investigation had been more prompt.

It took 11 months for DNA testing of Winston to occur.

Those 11 months also allowed ample time to provide a defense for Winston. Would the result have been different if the case had been handled more promptly?

Perhaps.

But Meggs believed he conducted a thorough investigation.

4. Does Winston have any legal recourse if he feels he’s been unfairly accused of a crime he didn’t commit?

Yes.

He could sue his accuser in a civil court as well, probably for defamation, but there is zero chance of this happening.

While lawyers like to make threats at press conferences on behalf of their clients, defamation lawsuits are exceedingly rare in cases such as these.

Winston already has refused to speak to authorities in the criminal investigation. Filing a defamation lawsuit would require him to submit to a deposition under oath about this sexual encounter.

There’s no way he’s going to be willing to do that, and any attorney who advised him to do so would be a fool.

5. Were the Florida State message board conspiracy theorists vindicated?

I can’t even count the number of absurd message board theory emails I received.

All of them painted Winston as an entirely innocent victim in this case.

Based on the facts in the investigative report, none of them had an ounce of truth.

Attorney Meggs said that he’d found no evidence of any preexisting relationship between the alleged victim and Winston or of any relationship after this incident.

***

The end result?

 

This woman believes she was raped, and Winston does not believe he raped her.

There’s not sufficient proof to establish the woman lied or that Winston raped her. So we’re left with a case that lies somewhere in the middle between rape and consent.

That leaves rabid Florida State fans who were convinced Winston was wronged unhappy at his lack of innocence, but it also leaves those who wanted a message sent to rapists everywhere that no one is above the law unhappy as well.

The final result is probably just given the factual findings in the investigation.

None of us know what really happened that night.

And we probably never will.  

Clay Travis is a non-practicing attorney.