No one dusts for fingerprints anymore. They Google them. In an effort to unearth an electronic trail of lurid evidence that seems to routinely surface in high-profile sexual assault cases involving athletes these days, the faithful search out info from phone-cam videos, photos or tweets. Anything to help them reconcile the disturbing allegations with a player's glossy on-field character.
But how can you square what you don't see? When the rape allegations against Jameis Winston finally surfaced after 11 months, there was no public peep show before, during or after. Not a telling tweet. Not an incriminating video. Not a post of social media chatter. Nothing indiscreet emerged from anyone who knew something or witnessed something or Facebooked something about a December night last year when a woman went to police and reported being raped by a man identified as Winston in January.
On Thursday, Florida State Attorney Willie Meggs ended a drama no one knew about until a media request last month resurrected a case that strangely had been buried in an inactive file by the Tallahassee Police Department. In a press conference he called, Meggs was jarringly glib. On the same day ESPN decided to cancel Will Ferrell's guest host spot as his "Anchorman 2" character on SportsCenter, in light of serious news events regarding the Winston case, Meggs didn't miss a cue to crack a couple of jokes. When Meggs was focused, he said he would not charge the star quarterback for essentially two reasons: The woman's memory lapses were "problematic" and the physical evidence couldn't support the reasonable likelihood of a conviction.
Meggs didn't openly criticize Tallahassee police for the time gap between the rape report and the moment he received the case in November, but he did say, "Time is important. It certainly would have been nice to have known all of the things we know now back in December."
Who knew what back then? The accuser discovered resistance by a police detective who, according to her attorney Patricia Carroll, warned against going forward because Tallahassee was a "big football town and the victim needs to think long and hard before proceeding against him because she will be raked over the coals and her life will be made miserable."
But given the entire -- and perhaps unnecessary -- process to a delayed conclusion to close the case, it's worth asking this: Who was really afraid to be raked over the coals? The alleged victim or the timid police?
Whether a rape accusation is against a football star or abusive boyfriend, a public official or deranged stranger, women brave the repercussions all the time to seek justice. I grew up in Tallahassee and never considered police to be blindingly friendly to The Program until now. There are rolling hills and quaint nooks, but Tallahassee has never been mistaken for Happy Valley, where Penn State could happen. Tallahassee is an academic town, anchored by Florida State and Florida A&M, but it's also a government post, where the economy is boosted, but not dependent on, industrialized big-time football. In the past, Tallahassee's finest had never hesitated to drop a hammer on FSU athletes whether they were involved in petty theft (see Laveranues Coles in 1999) or forgery (see Adrian McPherson in 2002). The police activity around the team once provoked this famous line then-from Coach Bobby Bowden, "I'm praying for a misdemeanor."
So has anything changed? Have the police allowed The Program to police them? The stakes around Winston -- from Heisman Trophy to BCS national title -- also reflect an FSU football program searching to validate its decisions to join the NCAA arms race. As with almost any dominating state school, athletics officials spend a lot of political capital to get to the top. Nothing disrupts rah-rah prosperity like a sexual assault scandal. In this case, there was an undercurrent theme -- if it's not public, why out it? -- as it sat on a back burner.
The public knew nothing. The alleged incident on this particular December night happened in what was essentially a social media blackout. It remained a well-kept secret in an American culture of spill-all, tell-all on the Web. What a relief for police. There was no pressure to do anything for almost a year.
"The social media aspect affects everything," says Michael Levine, an expert in law enforcement procedure who spent more than 30 years as a supervisory agent for the FBI and other federal government agencies. "It goes from a post to the mainstream media in an instant. It affects public opinion. When you get a case that is being tried in the media like that, it might even affect the judge. It might even affect the prosecutor. They generally run for political office. Some prosecutors, not all, are politically minded. The pressure from the public in today's social media culture can be immense."
The swirl around Winston was very 1990s when pitched against today's tech-built virtual public square. With a video cam whirring in a residence hall, you know police had a scene to feed allegations that Vanderbilt football players had sexually assaulted a woman at a dorm last year. Seeing tweets of braggadocio from the accused, you know a student told police that this was how she discovered her alleged assault, a revelation that led to recent charges against three Navy football players.
In Steubenville, Ohio, a case underscored by dehumanizing texts, videos and postings on the Web ignited a debate about the rape culture of sports entitlement. The trial by Twitter led to the conviction of two high school students in March. The social media DNA is a potent fuel to the frenzy. In Maryville, Mo., a special prosecutor was appointed in October to investigate why charges were dropped after the alleged rape of a 14-year-old girl by a high school football player, which was recorded by a cellphone.
Proof again: Digital memories can tell horror stories and reveal dark sides to a culture and stir critical debate. But these virtual breadcrumbs for the public don't always determine innocence or guilt -- a rigorous police investigation should accomplish that -- yet the question remains: Is legal diligence possible in high-profile athlete cases?
"It's difficult now seeing how everything has played out recently," says Levine. "There was a turning point, I believe." He cited two words: Duke Lacrosse.
In 2006, pitched against a political backdrop of elections, District Attorney Michael Nifong aggressively pursued rape charges against lacrosse players and falsified statements about evidence. The case against the players was dismissed and Nifong was disbarred. Nifong let himself be swept into a public tinder box of scenes from the party, including porn-style pictures taken on phones of an exotic dancer -- accuser Crystal Mangum -- and a disturbing email post depicting the skinning of strippers in an "American Psycho" reference. This was in addition to irrefutable accounts of racial slurs and sodomy jokes at the party and past misdemeanors involving the team.
As I noted in two opinion pieces for The New York Times, a no-crime, no-foul approach wasn't the only answer to the Duke scandal although it was the most popular one by the lacrosse team supporters. Folks can still inspect and debate a dehumanizing culture even though what happened at Duke didn't rise to a criminal case. I wrote in March 2007: "No one would want an innocent Duke player wronged or ruined by false charges -- and that may have occurred on Nifong's watch -- but the alleged crime and the culture are mutually exclusive. Some readers argue no one would have known about the lacrosse team's misogyny bash last year if not for the initial rape charges by the hired dancer. True, but that's how we often discover what goes on behind the curtains: by a botched break-in, through a door left ajar.
A broken door was left ajar in Winston's bedroom last December. Amid 86 pages of documents released by police on Thursday, there was this testimony in a police interview of Chris Casher, Winston's roommate: He backed up the statement of Winston's attorney that the sex was consensual, telling police he and FSU teammate Ron Darby peeked through the door and watched the woman give Winston oral sex. According to the police report, Casher stated that he went into the bedroom to ask if the woman would have sex with him, as well. "The female saw him and told him to get out," the report says. "A little while later, Casher stated he tried to video tape Winston and the female; however, when the female saw him she again told him to leave."
Imagine if that videotape existed? Would the lurid camera work have backed up Winston or shown distress by the woman who reported to police that the quarterback had held down her arms? In this case, there were no electronic evidence trails for the public to digest. There was nothing. No tweets, not a peep. No pressure from the public. What a relief for police -- for 11 months, at least. As Carroll, the alleged victim's attorney, said in a statement after Meggs' decision, her client worries that this case as it unfolded will "discourage other victims of rape from coming forward and reporting."
The accuser showed courage to go forward. But did the police?