Anatomy of a New York Times Hatchet Job

How to shape a narrative to smear people and institutions and using implications, loaded language, and selective information: a demonstration and tutorial from the New York Times. Part One.

No news entity—not even the famed four-letter sports network—has had more impact on turning public opinion against Florida State University and its football team in 2014 than the New York Times. In an unusual move, the Times actually stationed two reporters in Tallahassee for over six months in the effort to dig up anything that might be suggestive of an out-of-control southern football town.

To date, the Times has published stories focusing on several BB gun fights among the football team, the fact that fans don’t ask tough questions during a coach’s call-in show, and the following piece on a late-night car accident involving FSU football players.

For FSU partisans, this may be reason to celebrate— if that’s all the New York Times could dig up in six months, it may indicate the program is cleaner than anyone might have imagined a major college football program would be. But for those outside the FSU bubble, the Times’ slanted reporting of these incidents has painted an entirely different picture, that of a southern town in which one of the nation’s top two football programs effectively runs the city, with young men able to (figuratively) get away with murder (and perhaps literally get away with rape) because of their status as FSU football players.

That last element is the real aim. Since a thorough examination of the Jameis Winston case itself makes it clear that the star quarterback did not commit the sexual assault of which he was accused by a former FSU coed, despite a shoddy and largely incompetent initial investigation by the Tallahassee Police Department, the only way to make more of this story is to suggest that Winston was not charged because he received favorable treatment because of his status.

This is, of course, patently absurd, since the bulk of that investigation took place in the nearly five weeks between the initial accusation against an anonymous assailant and the accuser finally indentifying Winston as the allegedly guilty party. The TPD did not know the accused was associated with Florida State football during those five weeks, so their investigative failures obviously had more to do with the general inadequacy of rape investigations in the USA than with the (unknown) status of the alleged assailant.

Nevertheless, if one cannot focus on the (consistently exculpatory) details of the case itself but still wants to use the case for its advocacy appeal (never let a good scandal go to waste, right), the only recourse is to suggest guilt by association, finding other examples of FSU players getting special treatment that could then be used to subtly suggest that maybe, just maybe, Jameis Winston got special treatment also.

Perhaps the biggest irony of the Times’ chosen target is that Tallahassee by no means one of the best examples of an athletic department running amok and controlling a town. As the capital of the state of Florida, the city has significantly bigger concerns than FSU football, and it is by no means homogenously pro-FSU. The State Attorney for the district, Willie Meggs, has a well-earned reputation for prosecuting Florida State athletes, and is on the record stating of student-athletes,

"To whom much is given, much should be expected. Sometimes we ought to hold those folks to a little bit higher standard. Thousands of people would give their right arm to play for FSU or Notre Dame or Miami or Georgia, and when somebody messes up doing something stupid, it's a shame."

Nevertheless, the Times chose to target FSU and Tallahassee rather than other more clearly football-dominated towns. Obviously, I don’t have access to the Times’ reasoning for this, but it does seem odd given Tallahassee’s previous reputation for exactly the opposite of the picture the Times clearly wants to paint.

In this series, we’re going to look at how the Times and other media entities have used loaded language, irrelevant details, and inference to portray the FSU football program as monstrously out of control and Florida State University, Tallahassee, and local law enforcement as willing to conspire and bend the rules to benefit their local football heroes.

Below, we will start with a look at how the Times perfectly executes a hatchet job, featuring unnecessarily loaded language, slanted reporting, and irrelevant details to further suggest guilt and even insinuate a criminal element to the FSU players in question. The Times article will be quoted in its entirety in italics, with key parts in boldface and comments below the relevant sections to illustrate what a hatchet-writing clinic the Times authors are conducting. (Before we start, I should observe that I have no objection to the claim that P.J. Williams deserved a hit and run charge, and I think he should have been tested for intoxication at the scene. Just as with speeding tickets, anyone who is pulled over deserves the ticket, though the officer may choose to let the driver off with a warning. The problem is in how this anecdote is presented using loaded language in order to suggest systematic favoritism toward Florida State athletes, something this case does not support on a close look.) Now to our example:

Florida State Player Fled Crash but Got Only Traffic Tickets

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Okay, we can’t even get to the article before dealing with the misleading headline, which is already using charged language. The word “fled” means “ran away,” typically from danger or—as implied in this case—from law enforcement. By using this loaded term, the Times has already insinuated ill intentions on the part of the players. Generally speaking, those who “flee” do not return, either, so this loaded language is also somewhat misleading.

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An example of more neutral language might be “left the scene of the crash,” which accurately presents the data without insinuating ill intentions.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — In the early morning hours of Oct. 5, as this college town was celebrating another big football victory by Florida State University, a starting cornerback on the team drove his car into the path of an oncoming vehicle driven by a teenager returning home from a job at the Olive Garden.

Both cars were totaled. But rather than remain at the scene as the law requires, the football player, P. J. Williams, left his wrecked vehicle in the street and fled into the darkness along with his two passengers, including Ronald Darby, the team’s other starting cornerback.

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This is even worse. If one were feeling generous, “fled crash” could have been excused due to the need for brevity in a headline. But “fled into the darkness” is far more negatively charged language than “fled” by itself. “Fled into the darkness” is a phrase almost exclusively reserved for burglars, murderers, rapists, and other clearly criminal contexts. Take a look at the Google News search results for the phrase, which pulls up escaping inmates, a thief, armed robbers, two stories about gunmen, and the Times’ story about FSU football players.

One of these is not like the other—but the Times’ charged language certainly suggests they want you to associate them. I am always hesitant to bring this subject up, but I think it’s also important to mention that the Times’ language is that much more irresponsible given the unfortunate connotations this language combined with knowledge of the players’ race (all named parties are black) will inevitably have with the Times’ readers given the deeply-embedded racial stereotypes many of their readers will carry into this story.

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The Tallahassee police responded to the off-campus accident, eventually reaching out to the Florida State University police and the university’s athletic department.

By the next day, it was as if the hit and run had never happened.

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Again, loaded language now insinuates a cover-up. Of course, we have no details of the event other than the information that the players “fled into the darkness” by which we can assess whether there was in fact a cover-up. A credulous reader will at this point assume the players never returned and that there was indeed a cover-up. The initial narrative—which we know is psychologically difficult to unseat—is now set for the vast majority of readers, who will read the rest of this story through that lens.

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The New York Times looked into how the police handled the case, reviewing law enforcement records and interviewing witnesses, lawyers, the police and a university representative. The examination found that Mr. Williams, driving with a suspended license, had been given a break by the Tallahassee police, who initially labeled the accident a hit and run, a criminal act, but later decided to issue Mr. Williams only two traffic tickets. Afterward, the case did not show up in the city’s public online database of police calls — a technical error, the police said.

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The Times now places its cards more plainly on the table, asserting that Williams was “given a break by the Tallahassee police,” implying that his criminal act was excused because of his status as a football player—and also implying that the police tried to hide this fact by removing it from their public online database. Of course no credulous reader will believe the police explanation at this point. They’ve already been established as corrupt, not giving the player what he deserved.

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Mr. Williams eventually returned to the scene. But Tallahassee officers did not test him for alcohol. Nor did their report indicate whether they asked if he had been drinking or why he had fled — logical questions, since the accident occurred at 2:37 a.m. The report also minimized the impact of the crash on the driver of the other car, Ian Keith, by failing to indicate that his airbag had deployed — an important detail, because Mr. Keith said in an interview that the airbag had cut and bruised his hands.

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Wait, what? The authors waited until now to point out that Williams returned to the scene? That’s the single most important detail in considering why the police chose not to charge him with a hit-and-run, which by definition involves contributing to an automobile accident and then failing to stop and identify oneself afterwards.

The purpose of the law is clear: to identify those involved in the accident for the purpose of establishing legal and financial responsibility for the accident. A classic hit and run involves a driver fleeing the scene of the accident (typically in the vehicle itself) in order to avoid being identified as the party responsible for the accident. The legal and financial problems this action can cause are the purpose for the law.

By the letter of the law in the state of Florida, leaving the scene of an accident is indeed sufficient cause for a hit and run charge. But in practice, the attending police officers use discretion to determine whether a person should in fact be charged if he or she has not violated the reason for the law. Put another way, the attending officers had every right to charge Williams with a hit and run. But they also have the discretion not to charge him if they don't think the scenario warrants it.

That seems to have been the determination in this case, as the players apparently went to one of the players’ apartment a short distance from the scene of the accident before returning and providing their information as legally mandated. Once the officer in charge received the necessary information at the scene, he determined there was no reason for a hit and run charge. As the Times itself concedes toward the end of the article, that is not an unusual decision for the TPD in such cases (see the seven examples they provided to the Times none of which involved football players).

The fact that the airbag had cut and bruised the other driver’s hands is presumably provided because a hit and run charge that involves an injury to another driver is a felony, but cuts and bruises on the driver’s hands don’t seem all that relevant if there’s no real reason for a hit and run charge to begin with.

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The university police, who lacked jurisdiction, nevertheless sent two ranking officers — including the shift commander — to the scene. Yet they wrote no report about their actions that night. Florida State dismissed the role of its officers in the episode as too minor to require a report or to be entered into their own online police log, comparing it to an instance when campus officers responded to a baby opossum falling from a tree.

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So FSUPD sent officers to the scene, but they did nothing of consequence. Is it really shocking that they decided there was no reason to file paperwork that they had driven to the scene of an accident, done nothing, and then left the scene shortly thereafter? Conspiracy! Cover-up!

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The car accident, previously unreported by the news media, comes amid heightened national scrutiny of preferential treatment given to athletes, including articles by The Times examining how the authorities have sometimes gone easy on Florida State football players accused of wrongdoing. The Tallahassee police conducted virtually no investigation of a 2012 rape accusation against quarterback Jameis Winston, the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner. Mr. Winston is scheduled for a student disciplinary hearing Dec. 1, nearly two years after the accusation was first made. He has denied sexually assaulting anyone.

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Now we come to the payoff. The Times now insinuates that his case demonstrates why Jameis Winston was never charged with rape. It’s because “The Tallahassee police conducted virtually no investigation” of the accusation, presumably because he was a football player! Conspiracy! Cover-up! Corruption!

Never mind that “virtually no investigation” is false. As we have already stated, there’s no question that the investigation was poor, but it was by no means nonexistent. As it stands, the forensic results of the rape kit conducted approximately three hours after the incident sufficiently contradicted the woman’s story, since she claimed to have been chemically impaired beyond the point of being able to give consent, while the toxicology screen and blood alcohol tests demonstrated otherwise (more details here).

And again, the status of the accused couldn’t have been the cause of the poor investigation, as that status was unknown for the first month of the investigation. But the Times of course conveniently does not mention any of this, instead stoking the fires of preferential treatment toward athletes—even a possible rape cover-up.

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Elijah Stiers, a lawyer from Miami who helped write a state law enacted this year that toughened penalties for hit-and-run drivers, said the basic facts of the Oct. 5 crash had warranted criminal charges and a sobriety test.

“Two-thirty in the morning, people fleeing on foot — at the very least you’ve got to charge them with hit and run,” he said, adding, “You don’t get out of it just because you come back to the scene.”

The Times also showed its findings to the Tallahassee police chief, Michael DeLeo, who said in an interview that the department would “conduct an investigation to determine what happened and whether the officers acted appropriately.” He added, “No one should be shown any favoritism.”

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And as we will see below, TPD determined that the handling of this case was indeed in keeping with standard protocol. The attorney who helped write the law may advocate applying the letter in every case, but the officers on the ground do not typically take the same view.

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Florida State declined to make anyone available for an interview. In a series of written responses to questions, the university gave shifting answers, at one point saying, incorrectly, that Mr. Williams had driven his car home and that the Tallahassee police were required to call the campus police under a “mutual aid agreement.” A Tallahassee police spokesman said there was no policy requiring its officers to contact the university when its students committed traffic violations.

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FSUPD had its facts wrong! Conspiracy! Cover-up!

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Neither Mr. Williams, named the most valuable defensive player in last season’s national championship game, nor Mr. Darby responded to a request for comment.

In their report on the crash, the Tallahassee officers justified not charging Mr. Williams because he returned “approximately” 20 minutes later without being contacted by the police. That stands in sharp contrast to how the police treated another driver who left the scene and drove home after a minor, low-speed accident in the same area late last month. That driver and his mother contacted the police about a half-hour later to report the accident.

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The Times here implies that Williams leaving the scene on foot and returning a short time later to provide his information was functionally equivalent to a driver who drove home and never returned to the scene. The “sharp contrast to how the police treated another driver who left the scene” might have to do with the fact that driver DROVE HOME AND NEVER RETURNED TO THE SCENE OF THE ACCIDENT, don’t you think? But the way this paragraph is framed minimizes that difference.

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At five miles per hour, the collision inflicted far less damage than that caused by Mr. Williams’s car — and caused no injuries. Even so, the police charged the driver, who was not a Florida State football player, with hit and run.

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In a separate paragraph, which helps emphasize this detail, the Times observes that the other accident had been less severe and makes sure to include the key phrase “who was not a Florida State football player” to guide the reader to a logical conclusion: the reason for the difference between the cases is that one involved a Florida State football player and one did not.

Never mind that one accident involved a driver providing information to an officer at the scene—the purpose of the hit and run law—while the other involved a person driving away from the scene and never returning, instead contacting the police from home via telephone. It’s obvious why one was charged with a hit and run and one was not—and it’s not because one was a football player, despite what the Times baldly suggests.

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The Oct. 5 crash occurred shortly after 2:30 a.m., as Mr. Keith, 18, was driving home on West Tharpe Street from his job at the restaurant. A Buick Century heading the other way darted in front of him, attempting a left turn onto High Road. Mr. Keith hit the brakes, but it was too late: His Honda CR-V collided with the Buick, spinning it around. The Honda lurched to a halt a short distance down Tharpe, its front end crumpled, debris scattered around and fluid leaking onto the street.

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Only after 15 paragraphs do we get the actual details from the accident under discussion—and only after the other crash is described, which a reader might have noted doesn’t actually match very closely to this one if the order were reversed. But by putting things in this order, the Times is able to emphasize the greater severity of Williams’ accident, as though that had anything to do with the decision to charge someone with a hit and run (it does not).

But a reader who sees that one driver was charged with a hit and run for leaving the scene of a 5 MPH accident and another was not charged for an accident that involved one car “darting in front” of another will likely have a sense of injustice—despite the fact that the two aspects are unrelated. Again, the purpose of the hit and run law is to ensure the drivers involved in an accident provide their information and testimony at the scene. One of these examples did not do that—and that person was charged with a hit and run.

On the plus side for FSU fans (though likely unnoticed by anyone else), the fact that their star defensive backs are driving an older Buick Century suggests they aren’t getting paid to play.

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Shaken, Mr. Keith got out and waited for the Tallahassee police, who arrived within minutes. An officer approached him with an unexpected question: Where were the occupants of the other car?

“That’s when I first realized they were gone,” Mr. Keith said.

More officers arrived, and tow trucks were called to remove the two disabled cars. An officer at the scene, Derek Hawthorne, filled out a form for the abandoned Buick, labeling the accident a “hit and run,” and asked that the car be held for processing as evidence. Officers ran a check on the license plate and found that it was registered to Mr. Williams’s grandmother in Ocala, Fla.

About a half-hour after the accident, the investigation took an odd turn. Another officer at the scene, Joseph Smith, discovered that the glass front door of a closed Exxon station at the corner of Tharpe and High was shattered, apparently from a break-in, according to his report. The gas station manager was called, and she replayed security camera video for the police showing a man breaking in and walking out with an armload of merchandise.

The video, obtained by The Times, also captured a poor-quality image of the accident. In it, the Buick containing the Florida State football players could be seen attempting the left turn onto High Road, in the direction of the Exxon station, just as the burglar was about to leave and walk toward High Road.

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Whisky. Tango. Foxtrot. This takes the cake. After starting the article by saying the players “fled into the darkness,” the authors now discuss an “odd turn” to the investigation, observing that the players were turning toward the Exxon station “JUST AS THE BURGLAR WAS ABOUT TO LEAVE” and walk toward the road onto which the players were turning.

It is difficult to read this as anything but an attempt to associate the players’ decision to turn right at that moment with the burglar’s attempt to flee. The juxtaposition of the events were clearly written to raise questions for the reader, “Are these events in fact coincidental? Were the players in a hurry to turn and pick up the escaping burglar?”

We already know that the players “fled into the darkness” (charged language often associated with burglary) immediately after the accident. Was it because they were helping their burglar-friend escape before returning to their vehicle, having disposed of all the evidence?

The Times cannot come out and make a claim that these events were related, but they sure do the best they can to link them in the minds of the reader. This is the creation of guilt by association at its very best.

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“They happened within seconds of each other,” said Karen Southern, the Exxon manager, adding that the police had mentioned the accident to her but had not said whether they believed there was any connection to the burglary. No evidence has surfaced to link the two, and the break-in remains unsolved.

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WITHIN SECONDS OF EACH OTHER! This couldn’t be sheer coincidence, could it? But wait, it gets better: the manager, for whom the burglary is what really matters while the car accident is irrelevant, says the police had mentioned the accident to her (perhaps because that’s why they were at the scene to begin with) but “had not said whether they believed there was any connection to the burglary.”

Wow. By phrasing it this way, the authors imply that the police could indeed think that, but they’re just not saying it. Of course, the more reasonable explanation for why the police said nothing about it is that the two events obviously aren’t causally linked, so there would be no need to bring it up.

The final line concedes that there is no evidence to link the accident with the burglary—despite the fact that this article has just done its very best to insinuate a link between them.

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Mr. Keith said one of the officers had asked him about the Exxon’s broken front door, and he replied that he had not noticed it. He said he believed that when the break-in was discovered — at 3:06 a.m., according to the police report — the football players had not yet returned, indicating that they could have been gone for at least half an hour.

A university spokesman said that when the Tallahassee police called Florida State asking for help, about an hour after the accident, the players had already returned. Other football players who had heard of the accident also showed up, though how many is not known.

At one point, Mr. Keith said, a football player — he did not know which one — apologized to him for fleeing and explained that they “had a lot on the line.” The player was “sort of rambling” until a female friend told him to stop talking, Mr. Keith said.

“She said to him, ‘Be quiet, you sound like you’ve been drinking,’ ” Mr. Keith said. “I remember that very clearly, because it surprised me that she would say it. But the way he was speaking, I definitely had suspicions about drinking.”

In the crash report, Officer Hawthorne indicated there was no suspected alcohol or drug use, and he issued Mr. Williams traffic tickets for an improper left turn and for “unknowingly” driving with a suspended license. On the form for the impounded Buick, the officer used a pen to cross out earlier notations indicating the car would be held as evidence, writing: “No hold no processing.”

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This is the one place where I agree with the Times, and it is, as far as I can tell, the only worthwhile point in the entire article. It is perfectly reasonable to expect the driver at fault in an accident so late at night to be assessed for possible intoxication.

Of course, the Times emphasizes the player’s statement about having “a lot on the line” (again, implication: conspiracy!) and scare-quotes “unknowingly,” implying that Williams MUST have known his license was suspended but the TPD yet again gave him a break because he was a football player.

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Around 3:30 a.m., Mr. Williams, 21, called Mario Edwards Sr., director of player development for the football team, for a ride home, according to the university. The crash report said that both cars were disabled with damage that exceeded their estimated value. Mr. Keith got a lift home with a tow truck.

The Tallahassee police said officers had discretion in deciding when to press charges and issue citations. They provided The Times with seven other cases in which someone had hit a car and left the scene but had not been charged with hit and run.

A review of those cases, however, found that none were comparable in severity or circumstance to the Oct. 5 crash. Four of the accidents involved cars bumping into each other in parking lots, one other caused no damage, and the other two were very minor. In no case did a driver abandon a wrecked vehicle in the middle of the night and flee the scene after totaling someone else’s car. Notably, most of the seven crash reports contained far more narrative detail about what had happened than the report on the Oct. 5 accident did.

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As we said above, the officers have discretion of when to charge or cite a driver. And the TPD nicely provided seven other examples where drivers had left the scene and not been charged with a hit and run. Case closed, right?

Nope. The Times insists that these cases don’t count because none of them matched the circumstances or severity of this particular crash. But whether the vehicles were totaled or not is entirely irrelevant to a hit and run charge, as the earlier example of a driver being charged after a 5 MPH accident also illustrates. They’re not connected details, though the reader who simply trusts the Times narrative would be unlikely to realize this.

But again: the severity and circumstance of the crash is relevant to what traffic citations are issued. They have absolutely zero to do with whether a driver is charged with a hit and run. That decision has to do with whether or not the driver is at the scene of the accident to provide his account and information. That’s clearly what matters here, and it is the one detail the Times authors refuse to discuss.

I especially like the observation that “most” of the other crash reports “contained far more narrative detail” than the Oct. 5 crash. That of course means that some of them did not. So this detail is entirely meaningless, though it serves the purpose of highlighting another difference for the careless and trusting reader, who by now is surely convinced FSU players could get away with murder—or perhaps rape.

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The role of the campus police in responding to the accident is especially unclear. That agency’s call logs indicated that the Tallahassee police had called at 3:38 a.m. seeking help in an “investigation.” Yet, a university spokesman said all the city police had wanted was an after-hours phone number for a football coach so they could tell him that two of his athletes had been in an accident; the campus police could not locate a phone number.

The two campus officers — Sgt. Roy Wiley, the shift commander, and Cpl. Greg Washington — decided on their own to drive to the crash scene to see whether they could help, but they were not needed, the university said.

University policy specifies that police reports “must be completed and submitted regarding actions taken by officers” in response to an “outside request for assistance.” Asked why the two officers had not filed a report, the university said they “were not involved in the investigation, didn’t make an arrest and their assist didn’t result in an arrest, citation or summons.”

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Cover up! Intrigue! Shocking that police officers would not want to file forms in triplicate detailing their drive to an accident scene where they ultimately were unneeded. They apparently took no actions at the scene (or did they? We’ll never know because they didn’t file the forms, so they could be hiding something!), so they chose not to write it up. I’m pretty sure that’s common.

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The campus police chief, David L. Perry, said in a statement that he had reviewed the actions of his officers and had found that they behaved appropriately. “This was a routine matter of our agency responding to a simple request from T.P.D. and it was all together proper for our officers to go the scene,” he said in the statement.

As for Mr. Williams, court records showed that two days after the accident, he paid $296 in overdue fines, related to an earlier speeding ticket, in order to have his license reinstated. But the $392 in fines related to the Oct. 5 crash remained unpaid, and overdue, as of this week. As a result, his license was suspended again.

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What a lawless thug. And I bet he’s “unknowingly” driving with that suspended license again At least it appears FSU players aren’t getting paid. Nice of them to end with this ray of sunshine at least.


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