Sam Greenwood / Getty Images file
Jameis Winston during Florida State's win over Florida last Saturday.
Jameis Winston, the sensational quarterback of the top-ranked Florida State University football team and the leading candidate to win the Heisman Trophy, was cleared Thursday in a sexual assault investigation.
A state prosecutor in Tallahassee, Willie Meggs, made the announcement. He stressed that the decision was not driven “by any Heisman demands or football schedule.”
Under school policy, Winston almost certainly would have been suspended from the team had he been charged. Florida State plays Duke on Saturday for the Atlantic Coast Conference title and can secure a spot in the national championship game with a win.
Heisman Trophy voters have until Monday to turn in their ballots, and some were said to be waiting to see whether Winston is charged with a crime.
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A lawyer for Winston has suggested that he and the accuser had consensual sex. Her family has said that it was rape. The case, which arose from an encounter a year ago in Tallahassee, has hovered over Winston and the Seminoles throughout the football season.
“We came to the decision that it was not a case that we could bring forward,” the prosecutor said. “We would not have the burden of proof, the probable cause and the reasonable likelihood of a conviction.”
Meggs said that no charges would be filed against anyone, and that the case was closed.
“We need to handle each case equally and fairly, and it’s a search or the truth,” he said. “We did so in this case.”
A DNA sample from Winston matched a sample from the woman’s underwear, Meggs said. But he said that DNA from a second man was found, and had the case gone to trial, “having an unknown DNA in a sexual assault kit would be a problem.” He said that the second man was not a Florida State football player.
Meggs said that the woman’s memory of the night of the alleged assault had been “moving around a good bit.” He said that there were not inconsistencies in her story, just memory lapses. He also said that there was no evidence of “major impairment or use of drugs.”
Timothy Jansen, a lawyer for Winston, said that the quarterback was happy — “not relieved, because he didn’t do anything.”
“This was a consensual act. We believed it then. We believe it now,” he said. “Jameis is satisfied.”
He said that Winston might address reporters later in the day.
The woman’s family has sharply criticized the Tallahassee police for their handling of the investigation, particularly for taking 11 months to refer the case to prosecutors.
The family has said that Carroll, the lawyer for the accuser, was warned by police that Tallahassee is a “big football town” and that the woman needed to think hard about pressing charges because “she will be raked over the coals.”
Winston’s star power is unquestioned: He has led Florida State to a 12-0 record, was named ACC player of the year and set conference freshman records with 3,490 passing yards and 35 touchdowns.
The police have defended their handling of the investigation, and said that it was classified as inactive in February because police were told that the woman wanted to drop it. The family disputes that point.
Patricia Carroll, a lawyer for the woman, said in a short statement Thursday: “The victim in this case had the courage to immediately report her rape to the police and she relied upon them to seek justice.” She criticized the Tallahassee police for “an inordinate delay.”
The statement said that the woman “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.”
Tallahassee police said in a statement Thursday that the department “took the case seriously, processed evidence and conducted an investigation based on information available at that time.”
The assault was reported to the police Dec. 7, 2012. The accuser identified Winston as a suspect more than a month later, on Jan. 10. Tallahassee police have said that the woman’s lawyer canceled a planned meeting with investigators the next day.
According to an incident report released Thursday by Tallahassee police, the woman said that she had been out drinking and could not recall how she met the suspect. She said that she “possibly got into a cab” and was driven to an unfamiliar apartment complex.
She told police that the suspect assaulted her in his room, that he pinned her arms down, and that she tried to kick him off her but could not, according to the report.
She told police that the assault continued in a bathroom and that she did not remember dressing herself, the report said. She recalled being driven on a scooter to an intersection on campus, and said that she walked back to her dorm from there and called the police, according to the report.
Asked how such an allegation might tarnish the reputation of a star athlete, even if a charge was never brought, Jansen, the quarterback’s lawyer, said: “These athletes are on campus. Sometimes there are people that target these athletes. Maybe they believe there’s more of a relationship than what there really was.”
He said that he did not know whether that was the case with Winston and the woman, but “it’s certainly something you need to consider.”
He also said that he did not know how the episode would affect the Heisman voting, but “I hope the voters realize that he’s never been charged.”
The university president, Eric J. Barron, said in a statement that education was the school’s primary purpose.
“Recent weeks have provided a painful lesson, as we have witnessed harmful speculation and inappropriate conjecture about this situation and the individuals involved,” he said. “As a result, we have all been hurt.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
First published December 5 2013, 12:41 PM