TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – William Meggs, the veteran State Attorney here, walked into a crowded news conference on the fourth floor of the Leon County Courthouse with a piece of hard candy in his mouth, scarlet colored stripes on the tie around his neck and a complete lack of self-awareness riffling through his mind.
Meggs was there to announce that his office would not level charges of sexual battery against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, essentially calling allegations that Winston raped a fellow student nearly a year ago an unwinnable case because of myriad factors.
You didn't need to see the network news trucks parked outside to know this was an important moment not only in explaining a complex and emotional case that had gripped public discourse here, but also to present to the nation that this was a serious-minded community, not just a football-obsessed town willing to bend justice in pursuit of a national title.
It called for decorum, professionalism and tact. The female complainant deserved that. Jameis Winston deserved that. And the people of Tallahassee deserved that.
Instead they got Willie Meggs, who, at times, expressed gallows humor, was flippant with questions, openly sought light-hearted banter with reporters and basically conveyed himself in a casual manner that belied the significance of the moment and the altered lives that are left in its wake.
He was, said people who know him, exactly how they expected him to be – a little bit country and a lot bit wry, a 70-year-old with a career of accomplishment who, while maintaining an undeniable showman's streak, long ago stopped focusing on image. That partially FSU-colored tie he chose to wear? He probably just didn't think twice about it. Or how some might interpret it.
On Thursday, however, he should have considered how he dressed and how he spoke, because to the nation that casually tuned into what became a dramatic, nationally televised and globally streamed announcement, this neither looked nor sounded serious.
"As former prosecutor [and] advocate for rape victims I'm disgusted at the frivolity of Meggs press conference announcing no charges on Winston," Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri tweeted. "The press conference was just wrong. No time to joke."
And, strangely, that was the exact opposite of how Meggs' office actually conducted its three-week investigation into the early morning events of Dec. 7, 2012.
"I am quite certain that Mr. Meggs and his office took this case seriously," said Jennifer Dritt, the chair of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, who watched with her staff from their Tallahassee office. "I have absolutely no doubt. I never once thought he was going to be influenced by football. That is just his style. Those of us who know him recognized that that is just his style of handling things."
Like it or not, accurate or not, it fed exactly into the negative image Tallahassee is trying to avoid and one that Meggs' office worked tirelessly to fight.
While there was a predictable (and small) number of college kids who showed up outside the courthouse seeking attention – some painting "J-A-M-E-I-S" on their bare chests, others doing the tomahawk chop – those can be effectively excused as youthful foolishness.
This was the State Attorney who was smiling, laughing, looking aloof. He facetiously reacted with a big laugh to being called a "politician." He cracked a broad smile while delivering a one-liner about not knowing when the Heisman Trophy voting occurs.
At one point, a reporter tried to drill down on newly released evidence that the woman wouldn't tell prosecutors who her boyfriend at the time was – his DNA was also found on her clothes that night.
"Any idea why she was hesitant to tell you who her boyfriend was?" Meggs was asked.
"Well, tell us about your girlfriend," he cracked, a non-comparison that offered no insight but some giggles.
It was all so strange. Unless, apparently, you know the man the way locals do – where his decades of professionalism trumps his on-air performances.
"To people who don't know him, it may seem like this guy doesn't care," Dritt said. "I actually believe he does. He does take this seriously. That's his way. This is what we do in this office, we take these crimes incredibly seriously, and we believe William Meggs does also."
The facts of the investigation bear that out.
The debate will continue for a long time over whether Winston should have been charged in this case. And criticism will continue for the Tallahassee Police Department, which made clear mistakes in the investigation. Meggs himself said TPD could have made this far easier on him.
Still, Meggs' office, at least at first glance, appears to have given the case the very thorough, fair and honest look that he promised.
The State Attorney's office went after every lead. It tested everything it could. It followed every bit of evidence. An office with a reputation for pursuing FSU athletes more aggressively than regular students did what it could do. Meggs encouraged the community to read the full report when it becomes public and make up its own mind on his decision. If the public has suggestions, he said he'd listen to them.
In the end, memory lapses from the woman and two consistent eyewitness accounts from Winston's roommates that spoke to this being a consensual act played significant roles in the decision to not take the case to trial.
"One party said it was consensual," Meggs said. "The other party said it wasn't. [We] did not feel we had sufficient evidence to go forward to trial to prove it was not consensual."
Meggs was in an impossible spot. Not charging Winston left Meggs open to being beholden to football. Charging would have led to criticism that he was seeking attention by going after a high-profile athlete. Issues that range from racism and sexism to police misconduct were on the table. The case was overwhelmed by onerous – and mostly inaccurate – Internet rumors.
All Meggs could do is try his best.
"The victim and her family appreciate the State Attorney's efforts in attempting to conduct a proper investigation after an inordinate delay by the Tallahassee Police Department," the attorney for the female complainant said in a statement.
It's exactly the message this area wanted to send to the world.
Yet, the most immediate and perhaps lasting image will be the seven-term prosecutor cracking one-liners, pausing dramatically through answers and turning this otherwise somber event into a light-hearted afternoon.
He and his office had done all they could to handle a difficult and delayed investigation the best they could.
Then Meggs joked it all away at the news conference.
- Society & Culture
- Crime & Justice
- Jameis Winston