Martin Dyckman: Authorities responded poorly in Jameis Winston case

 A political cartoon some years ago depicted a couple of men looking out of the National Press Building at a mushroom cloud boiling up over Washington.

“How will this affect the Iowa caucuses?” says one.

The same sort of journalistic myopia has characterized much of the Jameis Winston saga.

The sports pages obsessed with whether the sexual assault allegation would cost the talented quarterback a Heisman trophy (it didn’t) and whether he and the Florida State football team would be too distracted to win a national championship (they weren’t.)

However, the more serious issue is what the conduct of that case says about the Tallahassee Police Department’s response to what some might call date rape.

That’s a huge issue in a town with two universities and a community college and tens of thousands of young people whose judgment hasn’t matured as fast as their hormones.

Winston says the sex was consensual. The accuser says it wasn’t. That would be a tough call for a jury.

But with Winston now in the clear — except for the civil suit the accuser’s attorney vows to file against him and the city –questions still linger about the thoroughness of the police investigation.

         –Do the Tallahassee police take such cases seriously enough?

         –What example has been set to other young women who might be thinking about alleging an assault where no major trauma, such as a stab or gunshot wound, bears evidence of violence or lack of consent?

         –When the police warn a woman that she’ll become a pariah if she accuses a star athlete, aren’t they making themselves part of the problem rather than the solution?

It doesn’t matter that the warning was accurate. It wasn’t for the police to say.

These are serious questions. The public deserves answers.

Patricia Carroll, the accuser’s attorney, shouldn’t have to sue the city for the answers. There was merit to her request for an official investigation.

But Gov. Rick Scott, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Attorney General Pam Bondi and the TPD itself seem to think it was handled just right.

Theirs is obviously a popular decision.

But it’s the wrong one.

Leaving aside all of Carroll’s other objections, there is this:

The young woman said she was assaulted by a man she had met at a bar near the FSU campus. She didn’t know his name.

That bar has surveillance cameras that would have helped identify him and anyone else with whom she had contact.

But the police never sought the tapes until long after they had been erased and recycled in the normal course of business.

Winston was identified after the woman encountered him in one of her classes.

Even then, it took a press inquiry to spook the police into taking the case off the shelf and sending it to the state attorney, who declined to prosecute.

In 2000, a nationwide Justice Department study based on interviews with 4,446 college women calculated that for every 1,000, there would be 35 rapes or attempted rapes in an academic year.

Over the course of an average five-year college career, between one in five and one in four of all college women would be the victims of a rape or an attempted rape.

In nine out of 10 cases, the women knew their attackers. Only 5 percent of the attacks were reported to police.

Surprisingly, perhaps, many women didn’t think being attacked was serious enough to report. But many also said they feared having the incident known to others or thought the police wouldn’t take it seriously.

Carroll may be able to haul Winston into a civil court, but the odds are long against getting the city there. And if she managed somehow to do that, she’d then have to show how the accuser was harmed by the decision not to arrest Winston.

There’s speculation that she might attempt this in federal court, asserting a civil rights violation even though the accuser wasn’t charged with anything or even detained.  As for the state courts, the Florida Supreme Court has made it extremely difficult to sue governments over their exercise of discretion.

“There’s a pretty high level of immunity in such things,” says Neil Skene, a lawyer who is writing the Florida Supreme Court’s recent history.

The most recent case, in 2004, absolved the Highway Patrol of liability for failing to respond to word of a stalled, unlighted truck blocking a highway at night. Two women died when their car hit the truck.

I wonder, though, whether Carroll would be threatening a lawsuit if the governor had agreed to her reasonable request for an investigation.

Martin Dyckman


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