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Column: Nagging Questions in Jameis Winston Case

N ew Haven, Conn.

I’d feel better about State Attorney Willie Meggs’ decision not to charge Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston with rape if it weren’t for a few nagging questions.

Why did it take 11 months from the time the victim contacted the Tallahassee police — within an hour after her sexual encounter with Winston last December, and before she realized who he was — for the cops to pass the case to Meggs’ office? As Slate columnist Bryan Curtis points out, the handoff happened only after the press broke the story. The police say they suspended their investigation because the victim stopped cooperating. Her lawyer, a friend of the family, says that’s not true. “When you all look at this, when the dust all settles,” Meggs said Wednesday, according to Fox Sports Florida, “you’ll say, ‘Man, there were some things that could have been done back in December of ’12 that could have cleared this up a whole lot easier than November of 2013.’ ”

At a press conference that turned weirdly jokey — at one point, a female reporter in the room blurted “Come on” in exasperation — why did Meggs make a point of the fact that the victim “acknowledged having sex with her boyfriend”? I suppose he felt he had to say something about the presence of someone else’s DNA, in addition to Winston’s, on her clothing. But the effect was to fuel the slut-shaming she’s already enduring — treatment that has led her to withdraw from her FSU classes.

Here is what’s bothering me most: I’ve been looking for a case in which a woman accuses a big-time college athlete of rape, and he is charged and then convicted. Two Navy football players have been court-martialed after a sexual assault allegation, but their cases won’t be heard until 2014. I found one instance of a basketball player, Pierre Pierce of the University of Iowa, who pleaded guilty to assault with an intent to commit sexual abuse over an incident in which his ex-girlfriend said he choked her, threatened her with a knife, and stripped her. There is also Darrell Williams, who played basketball for Oklahoma State, and was convicted of groping two women and reaching inside their pants in front of other people at a party; he went to jail until a judge suspended his sentence. And Zach Mettenberger pleaded guilty to groping a woman at a bar. He got kicked off the football team at Georgia — and yet started at quarterback for LSU for the last two seasons.

Public gropings aren’t the same as rape. And given the drumbeat of sexual assault allegations against athletes, the dearth of convictions is awfully striking.

That brings me to the underlying question about Winston, his accuser and Meggs’ decision. Did she lie, or did she make an accusation of rape that is credible but too difficult, in the view of this prosecutor, to prove in court? One thing is clear: It is uncommon for victims to make false accusations of sexual assault. Yes, it happens, causing terrible damage for men who are falsely accused. But the evidence suggests that the vast majority of the time, women who go to the police about rape are telling the truth.

Reading through the police narrative of this alleged victim’s account, it is hard for me to imagine that she had consensual sex with Winston and then decided to lie and say it was rape. It’s not easy to call the cops and say, as she did, after explaining she was out drinking at a bar with friends, that “next thing I know I was in the back of a taxi with a random guy that I have never met. There was another person in the taxi. We went to an apartment, I don’t know where it was. I kept telling him to stop but he took all my clothes off. He started having sex with me and then his roommate came in and told him to stop. He moved us to the bathroom ‘because the door locked’ and I’m not 100 percent sure how everything in there happened.” She also said, according to the warrant, that after the drinks she had at the bar, her “memory is very broken from that point forward.”

When she went to the police, this woman wasn’t trying to go after Winston for money or wreck FSU’s football season, as so many cruel social media posts have speculated, or as Winston’s lawyer cruelly suggested by saying his client was “targeted.” She didn’t know it was him. Most women would know that telling this kind of story, with its confession of drinking and ellipses of uncertainty, was probably going to cause them trouble and heartache. Winston’s claim that the sex was consensual doesn’t convince me that it was. Nor do the statements backing him that two of his teammates gave to the police just within the past month. I’m sorry, but those guys have every reason to support their friend, who just happens to be the star quarterback of FSU’s undefeated team.

I do understand that cases like these can be very hard to prosecute. The victim said she thought she had five mixed drinks over the course of the night. That was enough to blur her memory, she said. But based on the state attorney’s extrapolations, her blood alcohol level would have been 0.10, Meggs said — above the Florida driving limit of 0.08, but not completely drunk. Meggs stressed that her testimony was “problematic.” “Her recall of the events that night have been moving around a good bit,” Meggs said. “There’s some memory lapses. There’s some major issues.”

This is often true in rape investigations. There is a great piece on this by freelance reporter Rebecca Ruiz, which starts with a former police investigator in Vermont, Tom Tremblay, who says that many of his colleagues hardly ever believed a rape victim. “This was true time after time, in dozens of cases,” Ruiz wrote, because the victims “often had trouble recalling an attack or couldn’t give a chronological account of it.” But Tremblay knew that false accusations are not the norm, and he has become a consultant who trains police departments in a better method for interviewing victims, “an open-ended, narrative approach that elicits sensory details and allows a victim to describe the assault in her own words.” That sounds miles away from how the Tallahassee police handled this case.

None of this means that Meggs was wrong not to press charges, that Winston doesn’t deserve the benefit of being cleared, or that the quarterback shouldn’t play for FSU. “I can imagine a well-intentioned prosecutor who wants to go forward and simply doesn’t have the evidence,” DePaul University law professor Deborah Tuerkheimer told me. “These cases can be really tough, and it’s even harder when there is intoxication but it doesn’t go to the level of unconsciousness. Her recollection can be impaired, but she may have been capable of giving consent. These are really disturbing and difficult cases for the criminal justice system.” In the end, maybe that’s all we can say for sure.

Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and a fellow at Yale Law School. She is the author of Sticks and Stones.