Closing the Jameis Winston Case

Football Analyst
Posted Dec 14, 2013


State Attorney Willie Meggs officially closed the sexual assault case involving Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston over two weeks ago. Despite Meggs' decision, the story has not died, thanks to a press conference from the complainant's attorney on Friday. In the interest of clarity, we fully summarize the evidence of the case—showing why Winston was not charged—here.

A little over a week ago, State Attorney Willie Meggs announced that Jameis Winston would not be charged with sexual assault, closing the case and ending the month-long investigation into a year-old incident.

One day after the announcement, Meggs effectively ended a month of speculation about the details of the case by releasing an investigative file of over 200 pages related to the case. We were initially hesitant to publish a full summary of that case in part because some details of the file are especially personal, and if the case was closed, there would be little reason to reopen what might quickly become old wounds.

Yesterday, however, the woman’s attorney, Patricia Carroll, held a lengthy press conference lambasting nearly everyone involved in the investigation, suggesting that the case was badly mishandled by law enforcement and insinuating—though not directly stating—a cover-up on behalf of a Florida State football player, arguing that the case turned into the investigation of a “rape victim, not a rape suspect.”

As a result, we feel it is now appropriate to provide an accessible summary of the facts of the case, as can be reconstructed from the investigative file released to the media and the videos of the witness interviews released shortly thereafter. Below is a summary of that material followed by conclusions and questions that still remain.

The Basic Narrative of the Evening

Much of this case is not in dispute. First of all, contrary to many claims around Tallahassee and Internet speculation while the investigation was underway, it is clear that Winston and the accuser did not have a prior relationship, nor did they have any relationship following the incident. This was a one-night encounter.

Winston and the complainant met at Potbelly’s, a bar on College Street in Tallahassee, after which they, together with Winston’s teammates Ronald Darby and Chris Casher, took a cab to Burt Reynolds Hall, an off-campus apartment housing freshman and sophomore football players. The sexual encounter took place in Winston’s bedroom, which has a door with a broken latch, allowing Casher and Darby to witness what transpired in the room.

One of the witnesses entered the room at least twice while Winston and the woman were in the act, after which the encounter moved to Winston’s bathroom, where the door could fully close for more privacy. After the encounter, Winston and the woman got on his scooter and he drove her back to campus, dropping her off near Salley Hall.

Differences Between the Accounts

Two reports were filed on the woman’s behalf, one by a friend to the FSU Police Department approximately half an hour after the incident and another with the Tallahassee Police Department filed by the woman herself a short time later. There are a few differences between these reports.

The friend’s initial report was that the woman claimed to have been hit on the head and blacked out, eventually ending up in someone’s room where she was raped while unable to resist. This initial report is the only time any reference is made to the woman getting hit on the head.

In the initial report filed with the TPD, however, the woman claims that she had been offered a shot by an unknown white male who was a friend of a friend, she took a cab to the apartment of an unknown assailant (identified a month later as Winston), who took her into his room and took advantage of her highly intoxicated state, despite her resistance. She also recalled a smaller black man with dreadlocks (presumably Darby) having come into the room on two occasions telling Winston to stop, after which Winston took her into the bathroom to complete the attack.

When asked about the apparent discrepancy between these reports, Carroll stressed that the woman’s own report never claimed that she was hit on the head and indicated that date rape drugs might have produced the headache and cloudy memory that led to the initial thought that the woman had been hit on the head. Interestingly, the implication from the report is that if there had been any substance responsible for the woman’s allegedly incoherent condition (problematic, as will be shown below), it was not provided by Winston or any member of his party.

No head injury was found in the physical examination, so the case ultimately turns on whether or not the woman was indeed drugged or intoxicated, as the woman claims she was highly impaired and thereby unable to consent to sex, though she also says she unsuccessfully attempted to resist the attack.

Two Eyewitnesses

Ronald Darby and Chris Casher witnessed the incident and filed affidavits on Winston’s behalf. The woman and Casher acknowledge having talked with each other earlier in the evening at Potbelly’s, with the woman recalling a conversation with him as other girls told her of his status on the football team (mistakenly calling him a “freshman starter”) and acknowledged ultimately giving him her phone number.

Casher recalled that the woman seemed far more interested in him once she learned he was a football player, giving him her phone number at that point. A search of Casher’s phone, however, did not locate her phone number in his contacts.

Both Casher and Darby claim not that the woman was sober and lucid when she left the bar and indicate that she in fact pursued the sexual encounter, observing that the woman and Winston went immediately to his bedroom upon arriving at the apartment.

After a few minutes, Casher, knowing that Winston’s door was broken, called Darby over to watch the sexual encounter between Winston and the woman. They each recalled seeing the woman performing fellatio on Winston at this point, with Casher saying she was on her knees while Darby believed her to be sitting on the bed as Winston stood.

Shortly thereafter they claim to have observed Winston and the young lady removing their own clothing before moving to the bed. Casher says he walked into the room a short time later, with his explanation in the affidavit different than that in the police interview. The affidavit only suggests that he “busted in the room to embarrass Jameis,” while he reported in his police interview that he had in fact intended “to see if the female would engage in sexual activity with him as well.”

In any case, he says the woman told him to get out of the room. Casher told police that a short time later he entered the room with his phone in the attempt to video record the encounter, at which point the woman again told him to leave before getting up, turning out the light, and going into the bathroom with Winston.

Darby similarly reported having observed the encounter and also recalled Casher “playing jokes on Jameis and trying to embarrass Jameis” before the woman closed the door and turned out the lights, presumably wanting more privacy.

That said, Carroll has rightly pointed out that Casher and Darby are by no means disinterested witnesses, as they would naturally be biased towards protecting their friend and teammate. As a result, their testimony, while not insignificant, must be regarded with some suspicion unless verified by other evidence or witnesses less connected to Winston. It is to the remainder of this evidence that we now turn.

Other Evidence

The Toxicology Screen

The toxicology screen shows the woman’s blood alcohol level to have been .048 approximately three hours after the incident, "not very high," to quote Meggs. According to the SAO, that extrapolates to around 0.1 at the time of the incident, just above the .08 Florida legal limit for impaired driving but certainly not at a level that would produce a loss of consciousness or memory blackout.

The woman's urine sample was also tested for 172 different drugs or drug metabolites and came back clean. Inasmuch as the woman’s story depends on having been impaired, this is a significant blow to her case, so much so that upon learning the findings, Carroll requested that the blood sample be tested to verify that it was in fact the complainant's blood (it was) and has since suggested that the urine tested must not have been her client's sample.

Essentially, Carroll knew that these results were so incompatible with the woman's story that either the sample had been switched (perhaps due to a cover-up) or the woman's story becomes implausible. At Carroll’s request, the blood sample was then tested and confirmed to be the complainant's, a serious blow to the credibility of the woman's story.

Nevertheless, in her press conference, Carroll doubled down on questioning the veracity of the toxicology screen, asserting that “the only explanation” of the night’s events is “that she was drugged” and repeatedly insinuating spoliage on the part of the investigators. Contrary to Carroll’s assertion, however, there is yet another possible explanation, as is made evident by the eyewitness testimony in the case.

More important than the accounts of Winston’s friends and teammates, who would presumably be biased in his favor, are the results of the interviews with the woman’s friends who had been with her at Potbelly’s on the night of the incident and are unconnected with Winston or FSU football.

Monique Kessler, who had gone to Potbelly’s with the woman that evening, was also interviewed as a part of the State Attorney’s investigation. Kessler indicated that although the complainant had had a few drinks that evening, she was did not seem drunk, saying, “we all seemed fine.” Kessler then stated that the woman had received a text message from an unknown number asking her to come out front, at which point Kessler replied, “you can go,” with the woman doing just that “within a few seconds.”

This text message seems to have disappeared into thin air, as it did not appear on the woman’s phone or in any of the records obtained by TPD or the SAO. Similarly, Kessler’s phone did not have any missed calls or text messages, despite both the complainant and Casher recalling that the woman tried to contact Kessler to come outside and join the group on its way out.

Another of the girl’s friends, Marcus Jordan, provided her with drinks that evening at Potbelly’s and likewise stated in his interview with investigators that she was not especially intoxicated, saying that although the woman had had “a few drinks,” she was not “that girl” drunk, that she was “just, like, happy.”

Taken together with the negative toxicology results, this testimony is most devastating to the woman’s account, as every indication aside from the woman’s own story is that she was not in fact significantly impaired that evening.

The DNA Evidence

That the DNA found in the woman’s panties matched Winston is no surprise, as Winston never denied sexual contact. The presence of a second set of DNA in the woman’s jean shorts, however, was surely a surprise to investigators.

Upon being informed of this second DNA sample, the woman appears to have initially indicated through her lawyer that she and Kessler had sometimes shared clothes and that the DNA may have been due to that. When contacted about this, Kessler, however, could not recall ever having worn any of the complainant’s clothes, also “reluctantly” indicating that the complainant had asked her the same question about the shorts within the previous two days.

The State Attorney’s office had, however, already identified another possible source, a current Kent State football player with whom the complainant has been in a dating relationship, and ultimately confirmed that the second set of DNA traced to him. (Contrary to some Internet reports, that second sample of DNA was not from the same night as the woman’s encounter with Winston.)

In her press conference, Carroll objected to the relevance of the second DNA sample to the case, asserting that her client had answered in the affirmative when asked whether that DNA was from the young man in Ohio, thus making the whole question moot. She, however, neglected to mention the information in the case file that suggests that the woman first misled both Carroll and Meggs’ office about the source of that DNA by initially suggesting it was the result of Kessler borrowing her clothing.

It was apparently only after Meggs’ office interviewed Kessler and dug deeper about a possible source for that DNA, asking specifically about the young man at Kent State, that the woman confirmed that he was the source of the second sample.

Carroll is correct in stating that the woman’s prior consensual sexual relationship is inadmissible in court and is not in itself germane to the case, but the fact that the woman initially misled investigators about the second DNA sample is indeed relevant, as it casts further doubt on the woman’s credibility.

Seen from that angle, it is little wonder that Meggs’ office felt it necessary to confirm that second DNA match, as the woman seems to have been less than forthcoming about her prior sexual activity, which is significant to this case given the apparent disconnect between the woman’s story and the rest of the evidence in the case.

Carroll impugned the released copy of the medical report in her press conference, suggesting that the initial report lists “sexual assault” on the report itself. This, however, is unlikely to be significant, as it was, after all, a sexual assault examination.

What matters more is the actual physical evidence listed in the exam. Most significantly, the pelvic exam reports “gynecological tenderness” and “mild gynecological redness” but no evidence of bruising, abrasions, or swelling, nor was there any significant vaginal trauma or tearing inconsistent with consensual sex.

The report also found mild redness below the kneecaps and slight bruising on the woman’s left knee, consistent with Casher’s report of fellatio in a kneeling position and the continuation of the sexual encounter on a hard bathroom floor. Aside from that, the exam found mild redness on the right foot and slight bruising on the woman’s right forearm, again nothing out of character with consensual sex and certainly nothing suggestive of a man forcibly holding her down.

As with the previous evidence, the lack of a “smoking gun” in terms of physical indicators of sexual assault does not in itself rule out rape. But taken together with the other evidence, there is again little reason to suspect sexual assault.

Social Media

Finally, while much of the material would be inadmissible in court, there are nearly 150 pages of the woman’s text and social media records, including phone and text records along with Twitter posts accessible through various Internet archives. These records are representative of a typical twenty-first century college student for whom the so-called “hookup culture” is the norm.

Nevertheless, evidence of a prior sexual history does not in itself indicate that no sexual assault could have taken place. In the absence of other evidence that might independently call the woman’s credibility into question, this data is meaningless.

Given that the witness testimony and toxicology screen have already called the woman’s story into question, however, it is not insignificant that the woman’s social media history suggests that the witnesses’ account of a young woman lucidly choosing a one-night hookup does not seem entirely out of character. We will not, however, delve into the details of those records here, as they are not necessary to draw reasonably confident conclusions about this case.

Conclusions:

The woman’s case turns on whether she was indeed so impaired as to not be capable of giving consent. She claims she was already foggy by the time she was leaving the bar, ultimately finding herself in Winston’s bedroom, where she was raped. The woman’s own account, however, is the only thing in the entire case that remotely suggests sexual assault.

On the other side, the toxicology screen and (perhaps more significantly) the woman’s friends testify that she was not especially intoxicated or impaired that night. Winston’s two friends likewise assert that she was perfectly lucid and voluntarily joined Winston in his bedroom for consensual sex, which they claim to have witnessed. Taken independently, any one of these pieces of evidence might be questioned, but together they present a very strong case contradicting the accuser’s narrative and making it quite evident that the sexual encounter was indeed consensual.

That said, it remains difficult to explain the woman’s spotty memory and what appears to be a dissociative post-traumatic stress reaction to the evening’s events. As I see it, given the evidence that the woman was not in fact impaired by alcohol or drugs, there are two viable explanations for this.

The first and more cynical option is that the woman is lying, with her spotty memory about as legitimate as Walter White’s fugue state. It is, however, unusual for a woman to file a false sexual assault report within an hour of an alleged attack, as the best studies suggest a rate of between 2–8% for false rape charges, with the percentage on the lower end of the scale for those reported promptly.

Another, less cynical possibility is that although the encounter was itself consensual, something happened that was emotionally disturbing enough for some reason that it affected the woman’s memory and recall of the events. For example, the woman may have had such a negative emotional reaction to Casher’s two intrusions and attempts to record the encounter that once her adrenaline died down, her recall of the evening was dramatically altered.

Such effects of highly emotional or stressful situations on memory are not unknown. This is, after all, the same mechanism underlying the often foggy memory of many rape victims. But a spotty memory does not indicate rape occurred—only that the situation was highly emotional or stressful. In this case, the evidence for consensual sex is overwhelming, but it may well be that the woman herself does not remember the evening that way, at least in the pieces she does remember.

In such a case, Winston would obviously be aware that he committed no crime, while the woman might legitimately believe otherwise. Human memory is notoriously unreliable, especially in highly emotional contexts. That is why getting as many independent facts as possible to ascertain what actually happened and not just what a given individual remembers. Memory and events are often different, with memory sometimes surprisingly malleable based on later events or conditions.

Evaluating the Investigation

Although the evidence collected is in my view sufficient to conclude that Winston did not sexually assault the complainant, there is little doubt that the Tallahassee Police Department handled this case poorly, in a way all too typical of how sexual assault cases have been handled by law enforcement for years.

Although Carroll’s primary complaints about the investigation have concerned how long it took to request a DNA sample from Winston and the fact that Winston’s apartment was never searched, these details are of little importance, since Winston has never denied sexual contact occurred. All the DNA evidence or anything that might have been gained by searching Winston’s apartment could do is confirm details all parties already agree upon. Carroll, on the other hand, has seemed to assume all evidence of sexual contact verifies her client’s story, as reflected by the bizarre question she posed during her press conference, “Who has consensual sex bent over on a bathroom floor?”

The insignificance of those pieces of evidence notwithstanding, the investigation did feature several gaffes on the part of the TPD. Upon receiving the woman’s complaint, the police should have promptly obtained surveillance tapes from Potbelly’s and interviewed the friends who had accompanied the woman that evening. Had they done this, they would very likely have connected the case to Casher—and Winston—within a short period of time. Had they done this, they would likely have been able to obtain the video evidence on Casher’s phone, which would likely have unimpeachably answered any question about the nature of the encounter.

It is therefore difficult to disagree with Meggs’ conclusion, “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.”

That said, the State Attorney’s seeming inability to obtain full text, phone, and social media records from all parties involved in the case is puzzling. The complainant may have deleted her Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts, but that data is still in the servers of those companies, meaning all data that was originally public should be relatively easy to obtain via subpoena. It would have been that much easier for TPD to have searched through that material immediately after the report was filed, something it should have done as well. Given the nature of some of the accuser’s tweets in particular, that data would have helped fill in a few more gaps.

This was by no means a model investigation, and the uncertainty reflected in the public discourse since the case is largely the result of mistakes that have allowed certain doubts to persist. Nevertheless, based on the evidence we do have, the person most damaged by the sloppy investigation is Winston, as a cleaner and more immediate investigation would almost certainly have fully exonerated Winston rather early in the process.

Instead, because of the way this case was handled, Winston will never fully escape the fallout from these accusations, as he will always have to deal with the suspicions of some who will forever believe that he is yet another star football player who got away with rape. Similarly, the accuser would also have almost certainly benefited emotionally if video evidence had been obtained that demonstrated that her memory of the events differs from what actually happened. As a result, although I believe the collected evidence is sufficient to conclude that Winston is not guilty of sexual assault, complete justice was not and never will be accomplished in this case, and that is the biggest tragedy of all.



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