At FSU, questions about rape and a star quarterback

Did police, school do all they could?

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Early on the morning of Dec. 7, 2012, a freshman at Florida State University reported that she had been raped by a stranger somewhere off campus after a night of drinking at a popular Tallahassee bar called Potbelly's.

As she gave her account to the police, several bruises began to appear, indicating recent trauma. Tests would later find semen on her underwear.

For nearly a year, the events of that evening remained a well-kept secret until the woman's allegations burst into the open, roiling the university and threatening a prized asset: Jameis Winston, one of the marquee names of college football.

Three weeks after Mr. Winston was publicly identified as the suspect, the storm had passed. The local prosecutor announced that he lacked the evidence to charge Mr. Winston with rape. The quarterback would go on to win the Heisman Trophy and lead Florida State to the national championship.

In his announcement, the prosecutor, William N. Meggs, acknowledged a number of shortcomings in the police investigation. An examination by The New York Times has found that there was virtually no investigation at all, either by the police or the university.

After initial publication of this story, the university defended its actions. The university was headed until April 2 by Eric Barron, who will become president of Penn State University on May 12.

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers reiterated the university's support for Mr. Barron, saying in an email to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "We look forward to his proven leadership as he takes the reins and guides the institution forward. In electing Dr. Barron, the Penn State trustees conducted all appropriate, thorough background checks and investigations required by institutional policy for all employees."

In Tallahassee, the police did not follow obvious leads that would have quickly identified the rape suspect as well as witnesses, one of whom videotaped part of the sexual encounter. After the accuser identified Mr. Winston as her assailant, the police did not even attempt to interview him for nearly two weeks and never obtained his DNA.

The detective handling the case waited two months to write his first report and then prematurely suspended his inquiry without informing the accuser. By the time the prosecutor got the case, important evidence had disappeared, including the video of the sexual act.

"They just missed all the basic fundamental stuff that you are supposed to do," Mr. Meggs said in a recent interview.

Even so, he cautioned, a better investigation might have yielded the same result.

The case has unfolded as colleges and universities across the country are facing rising criticism over how they deal with sexual assault, as well as questions about whether athletes sometimes receive preferential treatment. The Times' examination -- based on police and university records, as well as interviews with people close to the case, including lawyers and sexual assault experts -- found that, in the Winston case, Florida State did little to determine what had happened.

The New York Times found that university administrators, in apparent violation of federal law, did not promptly investigate either the rape accusation or the witness's admission that he had videotaped part of the encounter.

In an emailed statement to the Post-Gazette Wednesday, Mr. Barron wrote, "For the record, based on careful analysis, I have a high degree of confidence in the process at Florida State University and that the university has met or exceeded all legal obligations."

The university issued a lengthy statement Wednesday, saying in part, "State and federal privacy laws govern the university's ability to comment on a particular student or disciplinary matter. This is particularly crucial in cases of sexual assault, where victims may request privacy to heal. To interpret the university's silence as a lack of interest or an insufficient 'level of energy' is utterly wrong."

The university's full statement can be found at http://fsunytimes.fsu.edu.

Schools are required to follow federal Title IX requirements, which state: "If a school knows or reasonably should know about student-on-student harassment that creates a hostile environment, Title IX requires the school to take immediate action to eliminate the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects. ...

"The school should also take steps to protect a student who was assaulted off campus from further sexual harassment or retaliation from the perpetrator and his or her associates. Regardless of whether a harassed student, his or her parent, or a third party files a complaint under the school's grievance procedures or otherwise requests action on the student's behalf, a school that knows, or reasonably should know, about possible harassment must promptly investigate to determine what occurred, and then take appropriate steps to resolve the situation."

The accuser and the accused were taking the same class.

Records show that Florida State's athletic department knew about the rape accusation early on, in January 2013, when the assistant athletic director called the police to inquire about the case. Even so, the university allowed Mr. Winston to play the full season without having to answer any questions.

After the championship game, in January 2014, university officials asked Mr. Winston to discuss the case, but he declined on advice of his lawyer.

When The Times asked Mr. Winston for an interview, an Atlanta lawyer advising his family, David Cornwell, responded, "We don't need an investigation, thorough or otherwise, to know that Jameis did not sexually assault this young lady."

Mr. Winston has previously acknowledged having sex with his accuser but said it was consensual. His account has been supported by two friends from the football team who were with him that night: Chris Casher, who took the video, and Ronald Darby.

A month before the rape accusation became public, the university's victim advocate learned that a second woman had sought counseling after a sexual encounter with Mr. Winston, according to the prosecutor's office. The woman did not call it rape -- she did not say "no." But the encounter, not previously reported, "was of such a nature that she felt violated or felt that she needed to seek some type of counseling for her emotions about the experience," according to Georgia Cappleman, the chief assistant state attorney, who said she had spoken with the advocate but not with the woman.

The university, after initially speaking with The Times, recently stopped doing so. Before publication of the initial story, a university spokeswoman, Browning Brooks, said she could not discuss specific cases because of privacy laws but issued a statement, saying that the university's "code of conduct process has worked well for the vast majority of sexual assault cases" and has "provided victims with the emotional and procedural help they need."

On Feb. 13, before the university stopped granting interviews, Rachel Bukanc, an assistant dean who oversees student conduct issues, said she knew of no student who had secretly videotaped sex. After The Times questioned that response, the university began an inquiry and recently charged Mr. Casher with a student-code violation for taking the video. Mr. Darby has also been cited in connection with the episode.

Patricia A. Carroll, a lawyer for Mr. Winston's accuser, said the police investigator who handled the case, Scott Angulo, told her that because Tallahassee was a big football town, her client would be "raked over the coals" if she pursued the case.

Mr. Angulo has done private security work for the Seminole Boosters, a nonprofit organization, with nearly $150 million in assets, that is the primary financier of Florida State athletics, according to records and a lawyer for the boosters. It also paid roughly a quarter of Mr. Barron's $602,000 salary.

The Tallahassee police declined to make Mr. Angulo available for an interview, but his report states that he suspended the investigation because the accuser was uncooperative, which she denies.

Mr. Angulo had three solid leads to identify the suspect: the name Chris, which the victim remembered; the bar's security cameras; and a cab where a student identification card had been used.

Mr. Angulo's investigation was halting at best. His first report, filed more than two months after the encounter, includes no mention of trying to find Chris or looking at Potbelly's videotapes. He did contact the cab company, without success.

Mr. Angulo, who had told his superiors that he "had no real leads," suddenly got a big one Jan. 10, a little more than a month after the encounter. The accuser called to say she had identified the suspect -- Jameis Winston -- after seeing him in class and hearing his name called out.

Again, Mr. Angulo hesitated. Nearly two weeks passed before his backup investigator contacted Mr. Winston -- by telephone, records show.

"Winston stated he had baseball practice but would call back later to set a time," Mr. Angulo wrote.

The police did get a response -- from Winston's lawyer, Timothy Jansen, who said his client would not be speaking to anyone.

Mr. Meggs said he was shocked that the police investigator's first attempt to contact Winston was by telephone.

"It's insane to call a suspect on the phone," Mr. Meggs said.

Belatedly, Mr. Angulo and his backup were asked to conduct a crucial interview -- to question Mr. Casher about the events of Dec. 7, 2012.

Mr. Casher made a startling admission: He had secretly videotaped part of the sexual encounter through the partly opened bedroom door and deleted the video from his phone a couple of days later. Had the police found him quickly, they might have obtained that video.

Meg Baldwin, executive director of the Tallahassee-based Refuge House, a haven for victims of domestic violence and rape, said accusers report that the university's internal complaint system tends to bury their experience rather than address it responsibly.

"When I compare FSU with other universities within the last five years that have done a great deal to address this issue, I'm not seeing that level of energy here," said Ms. Baldwin, a former Florida State law professor.


The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette contributed.


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