Christine Brennan USA Today Sports
There was laughter. There were jokes. There were smiles. The news conference in which Florida state attorney Willie Meggs announced that Jameis Winston was not going to be charged with sexual battery was an extremely light-hearted affair.
Everyone seemed so incredibly happy to be talking about an alleged sexual assault.
Reporter: “Was there a sexual assault?”
Meggs, laughing: “Well, that’s kind of why we’re here.”
This was supposed to be the definitive ending of the controversy surrounding Winston, and in many major ways, it was. According to Meggs, Winston is a free man. The Florida State quarterback will not be charged with sexual assault. He almost certainly is going to win the Heisman Trophy in a landslide next week. He might well lead his team to the national championship next month.
But can anyone watching Meggs’ news conference feel good about what they saw, laughs and all? Can anyone be certain that Winston did no wrong? Or wasn’t it more like this: There just was not enough evidence to win the case for the state attorney’s office?
There is nothing new about an alleged sexual assault case ending in this manner, with a high-profile athlete or with anyone else. What made this case so confounding was the way the Tallahassee police handled it. In hindsight, they look terrible, failing to properly investigate a serious matter, a possible felony, for nearly a year.
Then consider the strong words from the accuser’s lawyer that she was advised by the police not to press charges, and this looks like a group of authorities in a stereotypical small town fumbling their legal responsibilities because they were so smitten by their football team.
Reporter: “Any idea why she was hesitant to tell you who her boyfriend was?”
Meggs: “Well, tell us about your girlfriend.”
More laughs. It was a regular riot, with that smiling former state senator, Al Lawson, standing in the background, playing Ed McMahon to Meggs’ Johnny Carson.
Can you imagine what the alleged victim thought of that scene? What about a woman in Tallahassee who today is dealing with sexual assault? Or any victim of any crime, male or female? It had to be disheartening, if not downright chilling, to watch that.
That’s the face of justice in northern Florida in the 21st century? My goodness.
The stunning, less-than-serious tone set by Meggs did a disservice to the alleged victim – and to Winston as well. There are many questions about what happened the night of Dec. 7, 2012. We likely never will get definitive answers. That happens in high-profile cases in this country, and it’s something we have come to accept.
Some will believe the worst about Winston; others will believe the worst about his accuser.
In this atmosphere, if Thursday’s news had been delivered with seriousness and sincerity, it not only would have been beneficial to those of us watching, it also would have helped build a much more compelling case for Winston. It’s much easier to trust the authorities when they seem to be taking their work seriously than when they act as they did in that news conference.
It was there that Meggs curiously declined to criticize the police for failing to investigate the case for 11 months. Later in an ESPN interview, however, he turned much more serious, acknowledging that the delay did “hamper” the investigation. He added that Winston’s refusal to talk to the authorities also was problematic. Meggs said an interview should have been attempted, but Winston already had a lawyer and was refusing.
“That’s a hampering of an investigation,” Meggs said. “We’ll never know.”
Finally, some tough words from the man who should have delivered a lot more of them Thursday afternoon.