Last week, at a scheduled press conference in Tallahassee, Florida, State Attorney Willie Meggs announced he would not be pressing sexual assault charges against Jameis Winston, the first-ranked Florida State University’s (FSU) star quarterback and Heisman front-runner. Meggs said, “We have a duty as prosecutors to determine if each case has a reasonable likelihood of conviction. After reviewing the facts in this case, we do not feel that we can reach those burdens.” When asked specifically about whether he was saying that Winston was innocent of the crime, Meggs backed off and said he would “leave that to you all after you review the facts.”
And so, the culmination of a month-long, high-profile sexual assault case that was followed closely in the media ended in the commonly murky and shadowed space somewhere between innocence and guilt, true accusations and false reports. Like the vast majority of sexual assault cases in the United States, this one will not even make it to a courtroom, there will be no public discussion of the evidence, and there will be no definitive legal outcome. There is no exoneration for Winston (despite how many times a talking head on ESPN says so) and no justice for the woman.
First, some background on the case and the investigation.
Thursday’s press conference followed a strange series of events that began almost a year before, on December 7, 2012. Early that morning, the friend of a female FSU student called the FSU Police Department (FSUPD) and reported that her friend had been raped. Because the rape occurred off-campus, the FSUPD passed the case over to the Tallahassee Police Department. An officer met the woman at the hospital where she was providing evidence for a rape kit. She gave a statement that night (and provided a written statement the following day) of what she could remember, but was unable to identify her perpetrator. A month later, on January 10, after recognizing him in a class they had together that semester, she contacted the investigator and told them that Jameis Winston had raped her. Winston got a lawyer but was never questioned. The police say they stopped the investigation when the woman said she no longer wanted to pursue it and informed Winston’s lawyer that the case was closed; she says that the police failed to get in touch with her and that she never asked for the investigation to end.
Then, in early November 2013, after two media outlets contacted the Tallahassee PD looking for the report of the crime from December 7, 2012, the investigator decided to turn over the case to the state attorney’s office. After the news broke of the allegation against Winston, an investigation was reopened. The woman was once again questioned, as were friends she had been with or whom she’d contacted that night. Also questioned were two of Winston’s friends and fellow teammates (one of them his roommate) who were in the apartment while Winston and the woman were in the other room where the alleged attack happened.
When a leak by ESPN revealed that the DNA results from the rape kit matched Winston’s sample, he released a statement through his lawyer saying the sex that night was consensual. She maintains that he raped her.
The peak (or perhaps nadir) of this media spectacle was Meggs’ press conference last week. He announced it the day before, ESPN aired it live, and during the press conference, Meggs and others laughed multiple times about the case at hand.
When Meggs told reporters on Thursday that he would “leave that to you all after you review the facts,” those facts are a 248-page report compiled by his office from a variety of sources, including reports by the investigator in charge of the woman’s case, the results of her rape kit, witness reports, and copies of texts and tweets written by the victim around the time of the alleged rape. Yet, after reading the “facts,” it is clear that nothing about this case is clear:
His witnesses directly contradict her account but their statements were taken almost a year after the fact; her account was taken the very day of the alleged crime.
Her description of the events that night, while full of holes due to problems with her memory (a toxicology screen ruled out the possibility of her being drugged), has been consistent for over a year. Details from that night (what the apartment looked like, the name of Winston’s roommate, that he drove a scooter, the places in the apartment where Winston had sex with her) all match up with what investigators uncovered.
Winston’s DNA was found on her underwear and on her body. On her pink pants, there was also the DNA of another man, one she says she had consensual sex with sometime prior to the events of that night. Meggs specifically mentioned the presence of another man’s DNA as a complicating factor.
When she showed up to the hospital that night, there was blood on her pink pants and bruises on her body.
Police failure to investigate the crime when it was initially reported meant that potential witnesses were lost and video footage from the bar where they met had long ago been erased. Meggs did say that “it would have been somewhat better if we had gotten into this case a little bit earlier.”
The police say they closed the case because they never heard back from her about moving forward. They informed Winston’s lawyer of this fact in February. Her lawyer states that it was the police who stopped contacting them.
What can we takeaway from this then?
Is this another example of the lionizing of football players getting in the way of a police investigation? Is this just what happens when the lucrative and popular sport of football intersects with the damaging and victim-blaming rape culture that surround us? Or is it a product of a culture on college campuses today? Or both at once?
Can any of this be singled out? Should we only talk about one piece of this complicated pie? But is it even possible to talk about all of this at once?
The ambiguous outcome of this case is a product of a society that privileges a certain kind of masculinity, that funnels money into sports and players, that blames victims of sexual assault for their attack but sees Black men as a danger to white women, that knows that college campuses foster an atmosphere that protects rapists but does little to eradicate that, and that has a media that enjoys a frenzy and a scandal more than it will ever care about justice.
On top of all of this, we live in a society that does not invest in teaching what consent actually is. During the infamous Steubenville trial, one of the teenage witnesses to the crime, when asked why he didn’t intervene, said, “It wasn’t violent. I didn’t know what rape was. I pictured it as forcing yourself on someone.” While this appears to be the words of someone who is trying to explain away a terrible decision he made, it may, in part, also be true. The FBI’s own definition of rape was woefully lacking less than two years ago. And the mantra of “no means no” places the burden of stopping a rape on the ability of a rape victim to vocalize (and prove they vocalized) that they do not consent. Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman have explained how this “no means no” mindset fails:
But in a culture that insists women prove they didn’t want to have sex, anything becomes “yes.” A passcode. The fact that the young woman got into a car with a group of boys willingly. Even the victim’s silence becomes a “yes.”
The woman in the Jameis Winston case told police that she did try to tell him that she did not consent to what was happening but also that she felt ill and was having trouble talking. Maybe she never actually got out the word “no” or “stop.” But that shouldn’t matter at all. If we taught enthusiastic consent as the only acceptable indicator of someone’s desire to have sex, then there would be far fewer questions about what happened. “Did you ask her if she wanted to have sex with you and did she say ‘yes’?” That is a whole other world from “Did she ever say ‘no’ or fight back?” If I could choose which world to live in, I’d choose the former.
I don’t live in that world, though, and so here is the hardest part of all of this for me: Winston may truly believe he did nothing wrong and that he had consensual sex with this woman and she may truly believe that he raped her. And so, there is no end here for either Winston or the woman. There is no tidy wrap up or conclusive report. The case is now a statistic in a sea of such statistics, another example that our justice system and society at large are ill-equipped to handle sexual assault cases and the damage they do to everyone involved.