Jameis Winston has been cleared of wrongdoing pertaining to an off-campus sexual encounter with a then-FSU student who later accused him of sexual assault yet again, this time in a long-awaited Florida State University Student Code of Conduct hearing. Winston's attorney, David Cornwell, posted the news on his Twitter account on Sunday afternoon.
"In sum, the preponderance of the evidence has not shown that you are responsible for ANY of the charged violations of the Code."— David Cornwell (@wmdavidcornwell) December 21, 2014
In a highly unusual move to eliminate potential conflicts of interest for the university and ensure a fair proceeding, former Florida State Supreme Court chief justice Major Harding oversaw the two-day hearing and has cleared Winston of violating any of the four potential conduct violations of which he was accused, two of which related to sexual misconduct and two to endangerment.
USA TODAY Sports has obtained a copy of the letter notifying Winston and his accusers of the decision, citing Harding's conclusion as follows:
"This was a complex case, and I worked hard to make sure both parties had a full and fair opportunity to present information. In sum, the preponderance of the evidence has not shown that you are responsible for any of the charge violations of the Code. Namely, I find that the evidence before me is insufficient to satisfy the burden of proof."
That burden of proof is a low bar. The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights' "Dear Colleague" letter in 2011 required that universities conduct such hearings under the lower "preponderance of evidence" standard of proof rather than the usual "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard. Harding's ruling means that he concluded that there was less than a 50.1 percent chance that an assault had occurred or that Winston had violated the Code of Conduct in some other way.
After summarizing the various accounts and evidence in the case, Harding's letter concludes that there was no evidence sufficient to privilege the woman's story of what took place in Winston's bedroom over his own story:
"As summarized in the preceding paragraphs, the evidence regarding the events that unfolded between you and (the woman) once in your room is irreconcilable," Harding wrote. "In light of all the circumstances, I do not find the credibility of one story substantially stronger than that of the other. Both have their own strengths and weaknesses. I cannot find with any confidence that the events as set forth by you [Winston], [the woman], or a particular combination thereof is more probable than not as required to find you responsible for a violation of the code."
Harding also noted that he could not conclude, as Winston's side had maintained, that the woman had "intentionally fabricated an elaborate lie."
The Code of Conduct hearing was the final step in FSU's investigation into allegations of sexual assault federally mandated under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
Winston was never arrested or charged after last year's criminal investigation, as Florida State Attorney Willie Meggs (whose history of prosecuting Florida State athletes has drawn attention in the past) cited "major issues" with the woman's testimony, which conflicted with the forensic evidence collected approximately three hours after her sexual encounter with Winston, including a clean toxicology screen and low blood alcohol content.
This ruling is significant for the next step of the process, as the woman is almost certain to file a civil lawsuit against FSU and the Tallahassee Police Department for their handling of the case. This result makes it less likely that the woman files against Winston himself, as it is unlikely that Winston would be found responsible in a civil court after being cleared by such a proceeding more stacked against the accused..
The timing of the decision allows Winston to return home for the holiday—and after that play in the Rose Bowl—with nothing hanging over his head. This also ends any threat to Winston's future eligibility at Florida State should he choose to remain in school. Winston is, however, widely projected as one of the top two picks in the next NFL Draft should he choose to go pro.
FSU president John Thrasher also released a statement regarding the outcome of the Winston hearing:
“The university selected Justice Major Harding, a highly qualified and respected jurist, to remove any doubt about the integrity of this process and the result. He conducted a thorough Student Conduct Code hearing and reviewed more than 1,000 pages of evidence generated by three other investigations, and we would like to thank him sincerely for his service. Moving forward, we remain committed to the principle of due process, and our highest priority will continue to be the safety and well-being of all our students.”
Before the decision was handed down, the woman's attorneys had stated that they would appeal any decision in Winston's favor. The accuser's team now has five "school" days to appeal the decision. Any appeal must show the outcome of the hearing was affected by one of five criteria: (1) a violation of due process rights or complainants' rights, (2) prejudice by the hearing officer, (3) newly discovered information, (4) a sanction disproportionate to the violation, or (5) that the preponderance of the evidence doesn't support the finding.
John Clune, one of the accuser's Colorado-based attorneys, has released the a statement in response to the decision, saying that the accuser's team feels "duped," insinuating that the former chief justice is yet another part of FSU's conspiracy to protect Winston. The full statement is as follows:
We are stunned and dismayed by the order. It’s not a “decision” at all but a statement that the judge couldn’t decide.
Of the four people in that apartment only one, our client, testified and she answered any and all questions about what happened. The three football players, Jameis Winston, Chris Casher, and Ronald Darby, all refused to testify and answer questions and somehow Jameis Winston still wins. The Order doesn’t even follow the Student Conduct Code and it ignores the bulk of the evidence.
There are certainly glaring bases for appeal but at some point we have to recognize that Florida State is never going to hold James Winston responsible.
We will consider an appeal but right now we feel a little duped. We will have further comment in due course.
Since FSU's semester is over, the final date for an appeal to be filed is January 13th.
This story will be updated.