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Opinions on Jameis Winston case vary as Florida State community awaits decision

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – William "Willie" Meggs turned 70 in June. Since 1985 he's been the state's attorney for the 2nd Judicial Circuit, which encompasses the state capital and Florida State University, where he earned both undergraduate and law degrees. He's a former cop for both the Tallahassee city police and the Leon County Sherriff's Department. This is his seventh and, he says, final term as the local prosecutor.

On this warm, sun-kissed day here, the entire region and, indeed, the college football world, is wondering what he does next.

Could Meggs charge FSU quarterback Jameis Winston, star of the second-ranked Seminoles, with sexual battery for an incident that took place in a local apartment back in December 2012 but came across his desk only last week?

At this point the story has more questions than answers, more rumors than facts and is ripe with attorneys – one for Winston, one for the complainant – who are dueling through a breathless and sizable media contingent.

This is a case with no formal charges yet plenty of innuendo. It includes allegations of police misconduct and involves a beloved local athlete – which, in turn, spurs the inevitable complaints of athlete hero worship. It sits at the crossroads of seemingly all of America's pastimes: sex, sports, crime, mystery, corruption, and debates on race and gender.

Meggs will determine where it goes next. He has promised nothing more than a thorough review of the evidence and consultation with the complainant before he consults with his team of assistants. He says the decision could come next week. Or sooner.

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State Attorney Willie Meggs has yet to announce whether he'll file charges against Jameis Winston. (AP)

At stake are not just the futures of two young people, but – no matter how much less important it is – the potential fortunes of the undefeated Seminoles football team that serves as the chief entertainment of the panhandle region of the state.

"Obviously the high-profile nature of the case does not make Mr. Meggs' task any easier," said Chuck Hobbs, a local defense attorney who worked as an assistant prosecutor under Meggs before entering private practice.

There are complications all over the place. The 11-month time lapse between the actual reporting of the crime and the TPD handing it over to Meggs is unusual. Then there is the police allegedly tipping off Winston, or his attorney, to the investigation before necessary.

The known facts of the case meanwhile are so spotty and unusual that the information vacuum has been filled with rumors run rampant. You can't talk to anyone around here who hasn't heard one or more explanations, some simply troubling to hear.

Meggs himself declared the case "a cluster" just last week.

Charging Jameis Winston would not just set up a high-profile, high-stakes case that may boil down to he said/she said, and may make even victim advocates nervous. There is more at play here.

Just being charged with a felony would also – much to the concern of FSU fans – likely cause Winston to be suspended from the Seminoles, just as the stretch run to a potential BCS title game appearance is starting. FSU hosts Idaho here on Saturday. If he's not charged, Winston is expected to start.

So who is Willie Meggs and what will he do? And what exactly is the mood, the talk, the suspicions and the hopes around Tallahassee, which has been dubbed a "big football town," yet isn't really that different than most places in America.

The opinions, perspective and stories here are as varied as they come. The following are just some of many.




The onlookers

Alan Williams has a 10-year-old son who he describes as "an avid Seminole" fan. Together, they attend as many FSU sporting events as possible. Over the last year, like so many people here, their favorite athlete became Jameis Winston, star of both the school's baseball and football teams.

They've been lucky enough to meet Winston a few times and what Williams saw is the same likable, humble guy he's read so much about.

Williams also has a 14-year old daughter, however, so the thoughts of a young woman being sexually assaulted hits home. He's also a state representative for Florida's 8th District, which includes parts of Tallahassee. He considers the students who come here from across the world to attend FSU and Florida A&M to sort of be under his protective watch.

"We care about our community," Williams said Thursday. "We care about our students. At the end of the day, we want every one of them to feel comfortable here as they prepare for their future."

So no matter how much he's cheered Jameis Winston, "you have to remember, we have two young people here, and although this community loves the Seminoles we want to make sure all our young people are safe."

While it may be easy to paint this is as a town that will close ranks around college football, talking to people here mostly reveals the opposite. The prevailing sentiment is that if Winston is guilty of what he's accused, he should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

And while the rumors spill with increasing speed, each conversation begins with an admission that no one knows the truth yet. There remains a purposeful caution to let the process play out.

"I think this community is giving him the benefit of the doubt right now," Williams said. "Then if something comes of this, it'll look at the issue and deal with it. No one knows what's going to happen."

When it comes to Willie Meggs, there is mostly support. While he may not have won all of his cases – who does? – and there have been bad cases such as that of Travis Johnson that cause concern, there remains, for many, a public belief that Meggs attempts to follow the evidence and make the best decision possible.

Everyone acknowledges the pressure – both pro- and anti-football – but they see an independent operator who isn't afraid of anyone.

"By no means will Willie Meggs ever be swayed by popular opinion," Williams said. "I can promise you that. I think he will seek out a path based on the evidence presented before him and the answer will be what that evidence shows him."

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Winston hasn't lacked for supporters among Florida State fans. (USA Today)

If anything, said Chuck Hobbs, the defense attorney who once worked for Meggs, the state attorney's office aggressive pursuit of FSU athletes through the years may actually provide the necessary cover should it decide to not charge Winston in a case that could be difficult to win.

"This office does not kowtow to Florida State players," said Hobbs, who represented former Seminole quarterback Adrian McPherson on various charges through the years. "Mr. Meggs' record in terms of charging and convicting Florida State athletes should stop criticism if he decides not to prosecute Jameis. No one could claim he was part and parcel of some football-inspired cover-up. That's not him."

Still, the lawyers hanging around the Leon County Courthouse downtown or the politicos over at the state capital can't help but spend their free time breaking down a potential case that even for veteran observers still doesn't make a lot of sense.

"It's all anyone is talking about," Hobbs conceded. "There are so many unanswered questions."

A chief one centers on the leaking to the media Wednesday that Winston's DNA test revealed he had close contact with the woman. This, to the lawyers, was a nothing item because the belief is Winston's camp never planned to deny the two had sex. However, was a leak that was certain to create negative headlines for Winston a sign the prosecution is prepping to charge him?

And what of the lawyer for the woman framing a statement from a Tallahassee police detective as some kind of attempt to suppress the case? That was another bombshell headline centering on Det. Scott Angulo allegedly telling the lawyer, "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."

Hobbs said such warnings are common and appropriate when trying to make sure the case isn't going to fall apart later.

"If he doesn't do that, he isn't doing his job," Hobbs said. "That's what you do. You have to make things like that clear."

The biggest overarching concern: Can Meggs risk charging Winston if the case isn't airtight?

If the state's case proves weak and ends in a not-guilty verdict – after potentially costing FSU its big season, Winston the Heisman Trophy and a sizable piece of his reputation – there might be significant backlash.

While Meggs has said he won't run again for reelection, he is still a politician who serves at the behest of the people.

"There are a lot of people in North Florida who follow the Seminoles," Hobbs said. "And if they feel there was some type of smear campaign on Jameis Winston and then see the verdict is not guilty, the voters may take it out on [Meggs] in 2016. And even if he doesn't run again, they may take it out on his hand-picked successor."




The acquitted

Travis Johnson says he knows exactly who Willie Meggs is. He certainly knows, perhaps better than just about anyone else, what Jameis Winston may be dealing with right now.

Ten years ago, Johnson was a Florida State defensive lineman charged with sexual battery by Meggs' office. He was accused of forcing himself on an FSU female shot putter, with whom he'd previously had a relationship. His family hired an attorney. He vehemently proclaimed his innocence. He said he took and passed three lie detector tests. He presented evidence and experts who said because of a recent surgery, he couldn't possibly have held anyone down.

"Meggs charged me anyway," Johnson told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. "Just like I believe he's going to charge Jameis. He wants to prosecute Florida State players. He is obsessed with attention and wants big cases."

The State Attorney has repeatedly defended its decision to try the Johnson case, saying it was a case of he said/she said, and there was no ulterior motive in bringing it to trial.

After two days of evidence and testimony, however, Johnson won an acquittal from an all-female jury that needed just 30 minutes of deliberation.

"I talked to the jury," Johnson said. "They didn't even need that. They spent five minutes going to the bathroom, five minutes laughing about the evidence. The trial was a joke. Meggs knew all of that. He never should have charged me."

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Former Seminoles lineman Travis Johnson was acquitted of a sexual battery charge 10 years ago. (Getty Images)

Johnson was cleared just before his senior year, where he returned to the field for the Seminoles and wound up the 16th pick overall in the 2005 NFL draft. He played six seasons in the league for Houston and San Diego and now looks on from afar convinced that he is witnessing deja vu – the potential railroading of a star Seminole.

"I was a star but not the level of Jameis Winston," Johnson said. "This is Willie Meggs' big chance."

Johnson, 31, is married and raising five children in Houston. He said while he obviously doesn't know exactly what happened in the Winston case, from what he does know via media reports and his connections to FSU football, he believes in the quarterback's innocence. He says just charging Winston would be devastating to the player.

Mostly he doesn't trust the State Attorney.

"Facts don't matter when you are dealing with a guy like Willie Meggs. Willie Meggs isn't out for the facts …

"At the end of the day, this is still the Jim Crow South," said Johnson, who originally hailed from Sherman Oaks, Calif. "You think, 'It's Florida.' Well, it's not Florida. It's South Georgia. Tallahassee is South Georgia."

Johnson fears for Winston if he is charged. He says his own ordeal resulted in severe mental and emotional depression, and the hurt didn't go away with an acquittal. He had to relive it through taunts from opposing fans and concerned looks from fellow students who merely passed him the hallway outside a classroom. The humiliation continued when he had to discuss the situation with all 32 NFL teams during the draft process. And he knows that no matter what the jury said, some still believe he did it.

"Right after the verdict I turned to the State's Attorney table and told them, 'You're all pieces of [expletive],' " Johnson said. "They knew the facts of the case and they put me through it anyway. They tried to destroy me. And now it's the same thing.

"Same people, new player."




The Professor

On an idyllic Thursday afternoon on campus, the FSU football machinery rolled on as usual. Drums thumped in the autumn air as the Marching Chiefs, the school band, practiced for Saturday's game against Idaho. Outside Doak Campbell Stadium, tailgating tents were being set up on the prime real estate near the Unconquered Statue, which depicts a spear-brandishing Seminole on a rearing horse.

Sitting at a nearby table, Communications Professor Arthur Raney reflected on the Winston controversy and its meaning to Florida State. He was an athlete growing up in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and remains a sports fan – he understands the deal. All sides of it.

"Faculty members have a love-hate relationship with athletics," Raney said, Marching Chiefs drumbeats echoing in the distance. "We like to say that we were here before they were – that the school existed before there was a football team. But at the same time, when the football team does well we have an increased number of applications. The name and brand is spread further. There are benefits, absolutely, with having a top-notch football team.

"The winning breeds excitement, pride and engagement among the students as well. That's why this situation is like a gut punch."

Raney's office is actually inside the stadium – in the belly of the beast, as it were. This semester he is teaching an auditorium-sized class called Media, Sports & Society. With a TV satellite truck parked nearby, a reporter across the table and a star football player in the crosshairs of a societal hot-button issue, this might as well be a real-time classroom for him.

As the story swirls, what Raney sees and hears from his students largely echoes what he sees and hears from his peers.

"The faculty members who are fans are shaking their heads and asking the same questions every other fan is asking," Raney said. "The faculty and other folks in town who aren't fans are saying, 'Yep, the typical football story. Seen it before. From O.J. Simpson to Aaron Hernandez, this what happens.' "

Raney has taught enough football players – and other athletes – to know that it's not quite that simple. In fact, he said the athletes he has had in class at FSU (including seven right now) have been almost universally conscientious about their grades and eager to learn. That includes some who have gone on to the NFL and the Olympics.

But since the school's last football national championship, in 1999, no athlete has had a more immediate impact than Jameis Winston. And the jarring thing for so many supporters of the Seminoles, Raney said, was how the feel-good Winston story now is threatened by a plot twist that nobody feels good about.

"As of two weeks ago, the narrative of Jameis Winston – small-town Alabama, recruited out from under Nick Saban's nose, seems to be a great kid, a great leader on the field – was a great narrative," he said. "And it's real easy to buy into that, as a faculty member as much as a student.

"Athletics can put a university in a bad light or it can put it in a good light. This is one that puts the university's best foot forward. It's easy to buy into. And then when this first comes out, this doesn't fit with the narrative. So this is a defensive strategy: 'I want to keep believing in the narrative.'

"But at the same time, a lot of faculty members are saying, 'Regardless of who is involved, a woman is claiming she was sexually assaulted.' And the extent to which she gets lost in this story is another crime. It's a crime of our conscience. The idea that sexual crimes happen on college campuses is nothing new, but you don't want to think it's happening among your students. Regardless of who it is, that is a sobering reality."




The student

It's quiet in the small, spartan offices of the FSView & Florida Flambeau, the student newspaper at Florida State. The paper comes out every Monday and Thursday, and the day after the last issue of the week is usually low-key.

Inside the entry to the building is a bundle of freshly published papers. Pull one off the stack and the initial read is all positive: a full-page picture of celebrating Seminoles beneath the headline, "Senior Day 2013 – The House They Built." Florida State's last home football game of the season is Saturday. Every home game gets an eight-page, tabloid wraparound section, feeding the ravenous football appetite among the students.

But peel back the celebratory cover and you find the serious stuff in the middle, at the top of the news section: the latest on the Jameis Winston rape accusation.

Editor-in-Chief Brendan Bures has his byline on the story. The senior from Satellite Beach, Fla., tugged at his brown beard as he tried to describe the wild mood swing since the story first broke Nov. 13.

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Winston's play this season has given Florida State fans reason to dream of a national title. (AP)

"One of my editors actually texted me and said he feels like he's in Gotham and Batman just died," Bures said. "That's probably the best way to describe how it's been around here.

"You can't go anywhere without [the rape accusation] being mentioned. Comparing how it was on campus two weeks ago to now, it's obvious this has just dampened everything."

The news has dampened what was a wildfire of enthusiasm. Florida State has a great history and tradition, but to the kids ages 18 to 22 who are on campus now, the glory days are all past tense.

Their football experience has been a succession of overrated and overhyped teams that always found a team they could overlook, always had a gimme game they could blow. National title contention, once considered a birthright in Tallahassee, had become a cruel tease.

"There's a complex Florida State fans have had over the years, where it always feels like a 'Yeah, But' kind of season," Bures said. "As soon as anybody is ready to declare FSU is back, it's a random loss against N.C. State [in 2012] or something like that. That N.C. State loss is seriously still felt.

"But [this year] the unadulterated excitement has been ubiquitous here, everywhere you go. Even people I wouldn't expect to be asking me questions about Florida State football are coming up to me on campus and talking about it."

The big difference, of course, has been Famous Jameis. From his debut game on Labor Day night against Pittsburgh onward, he has played at an exalted, program-elevating level. And the students have ditched the complex and bought in to a hero-worshipping extent.

"It's been almost to the point of a messiah," Bures said. "Not to go into the religious overtones with it, but the week after Pittsburgh, people were posting 'Jameis Christ,' and pictures of Jesus Christ with Jameis' face over it. There were screen shots of the road to Pasadena [site of the national championship game]. They were that confident already."

Confidence has been replaced by a crisis of faith. Could FSU's Chosen One be much more sinner than saint?

"Suspicion would be probably the best word," Bures said of student reaction to the ongoing revelations. "Not from me, personally, but just from around the campus. Why the timing of it all? Why is this information leaking, and turning into kind of a he said/she said case? It's definitely been wait-and-see.

"Nobody's passing judgment. They're kind of giving him the benefit of the doubt so far."




The advocate

Counter to stereotype, Jennifer Dritt is a sexual assault prevention expert who loves football.

That's why she has a rubber football on a bookshelf in the conference room at the headquarters of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence. And that's why the admitted NFL Red Zone addict was searching for the NFL Network on the TV in her hotel room last week in Sarasota, Fla.

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Winston has denied any wrongdoing through his attorney. (USA Today)

Dritt couldn't find it. What she did find was news from back home, in Tallahassee: Police were investigating a potential sexual battery case that involved star Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston.

Dritt, a New Mexico alum but also a Florida State fan, laid her head on her hotel room desk.

"Oh, God," she said to herself. "Not again."

She has seen enough of it in her line of work. Too much, in fact. To the point that her mild voice hardens and her bracelets bang against the wooden table as she gestures and says, "I'm so tired – so tired – of this."

Dritt cited recent research that calculates one in eight college women are victims of sexual assault, and a Centers for Disease Control study that says one in six Florida women are victimized.

"These things happen a lot more often than the general public realizes," she said.

Dritt also said that the vast majority of sexual assault accusations are legitimate. She said the global false accusation rate is between 2 and 7 percent.

"There is really no incentive for people to make false allegations," Dritt said. "It is a grueling process. The physical exam is thoroughly unpleasant. Prosecutions are rare. So people have been dis-incentivized to come forward. So it is really an injustice to assume something didn't happen. It's a challenge to withhold judgment but I think an informed community can do that."

Surprisingly, Dritt believes the more judgmental gender when it comes to sexual assault tends to be women.

"It's been my experience that women are harder on the survivor than men," she said. "Think about when bad things happen, people say, 'That wouldn't happen to me because I wouldn't have done that.'

"Young women will say, 'I would never have done that so the attack is her fault. I would never have had that much to drink. She should've made better choices.' "

"Guys say, 'We know what other guys do.' And guys know the stature they have in situations like that. Guys are not experiencing the vulnerable position."

Dritt is focused on educating people, especially young people who are most at risk, about what sexual assault is and how it can be avoided. She thinks most men who commit the crime do so without premeditation, and getting everyone to understand the dynamics involved is the key.

Dritt knows this case will bring immense attention to sex crimes in Florida in general and Tallahassee in particular. She has met Meggs and knows his work. She has faith he will make the proper decision here, no matter what it is. She isn't advocating for anything at this point because she believes there must be fairness to the process – for both sides.

"What we hope for is that everybody gets dealt with fairly," she said. "That the survivor gets dealt with fairly. That he gets dealt with fairly."

So she, too, is nervous about Meggs' pending decision, and the fallout from it, especially if a weak case is brought forward only to end in acquittal. The message sent then would be worse than if there were no charges at all. It wouldn't look fair.

"Oh, it'd be terrible," Dritt said. "It'd be terrible. It'd be a setback for us and our efforts to end sexual violence and to get communities to understand how common it is, to ask people to behave appropriately, to ask bystanders to intervene.

"I think it's the worst scenario for the work we do, it's the worst scenario for the survivor and her family."

So she waits, like everyone else – those who believe in him and those who don't ––for Willie Meggs to tell everyone where this story, and Tallahassee, goes next.

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