A prosecutor's decision to not bring charges against Florida State quarterback and Heisman Trophy favorite Jameis Winston has removed a cloud from over the team, which is focused and prepared to face Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game, Coach Jimbo Fisher said.
Winston is ACC player of the year and the leader in the Heisman race. Many voters were waiting to see whether he would be charged before casting their ballot with the deadline approaching Monday.
State Attorney Willie Meggs told a news conference Thursday there was not enough evidence to win a conviction against Winston, mostly because there were too many gaps in his accuser's story.
Winston, 19, practiced as usual Thursday and traveled with the team to Charlotte in the evening. There are no more doubts about his availability for the ACC title game and he is scheduled to be on the field for a bowl game. Florida State is heavily favored against Duke (10-2) and a win puts the Seminoles in the BCS championship game.
"It's been difficult to stay silent through this process, but I never lost faith in the truth and in who I am," Winston said in a statement.
"I think they handled it tremendous," Fisher said of the team's reaction to the Winston investigation. "I think it's because they believe in each other. They trust in each other. They believe in what we're doing here. They want to play for each other."
Meggs' office took over the case last month and took DNA from Winston and the woman's boyfriend at the time, and they interviewed her. Winston refused to be interviewed by police.
Meggs said DNA found on the accuser's shorts matched her boyfriend and DNA on her underwear matched Winston. Winston's attorney, Timothy Jansen, said Winston had consensual sex with the accuser.
"He's absolutely innocent and I'm glad and pleased that Willie did a full investigation and found the same thing that we did," Jansen said. "He's relieved that it's over and now he's focused even more on football."
"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," Patricia Carroll, the attorney representing the alleged victim, said in a statement. "The victim in this case had the courage to immediately report her rape to the police and she relied upon them to seek justice. The victim has grave concerns that her experience, as it unfolded in the public eye and through social media, will discourage other victims of rape from coming forward and reporting."
The accuser's family has been sharply critical of the way Tallahassee police have handled the case. They said they pushed to have a DNA sample taken from Winston, only to be told by a police detective that it would alert Winston and make the case public. The family said Carroll was warned by police that Tallahassee is a "big football town, and 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."
Tallahassee police have defended their handling of the case and said it was placed on inactive status in February after police were told the alleged victim did not wish to prosecute the case. The woman's attorney has denied that the woman wanted to drop the investigation.
The alleged victim was an FSU student, but she left school last month as media reports of the case surfaced. Meggs said he believed the woman wanted the case to move forward.
At a restaurant on campus, students high-fived one another and did the Seminole's chant and tomahawk chop when Meggs' said no charges would be filed.
"It's been a tough couple weeks," said Justin Savage, a 21-year-old senior sports management major from Fort Walton Beach. "I'm just so grateful. He's just so lovable a guy. You can see him on campus and he'll talk to you, it doesn't matter who you are."
The accuser's family released a statement after Meggs' announcement saying that she "has grave concerns that her experience, as it unfolded in the public eye and through social media, will discourage other victims of rape from coming forward and reporting."
The alleged victim was an FSU student, but she left school last month as media reports of the case surfaced.
Fisher said Winston never seemed affected by the investigation. He was named ACC player of the year this week.
"He's the same guy out there leading his teammates and happy to be on the field," Fisher said. "He's very mature. He has strength in his beliefs in what he does. He's very mature that way. A lot of grown-ups can't do that. He can prioritize and compartmentalize when he has to do certain things.
"To me that gets back to controlling what you can control at that present time. He's done a good job of that."
The Seminoles (12-0) finished the regular season undefeated for the first time since the 1999 national championship season. The sexual assault case became public three weeks ago as Florida State hit the homestretch and as Winston became a Heisman Trophy favorite.
Winston stays in the race to be the third Heisman Trophy winner in Florida State history. The trophy will be awarded Dec. 14. He could join quarterbacks Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke, who also won national titles in Tallahassee, Fla.
Fisher addressed the team about Meggs' decision before practice and said the focus immediately turned toward the final day of preparation before flying out.
"We're happy to be where we're going and that's what we're focused on," Fisher said. "We'll have the same mindset we always have."
It was unclear if the alleged victim would pursue a civil case against Winston. Her family has been sharply critical of the Tallahassee Police Department, accusing the agency of delaying the investigation and discouraging her from going forward with the case because of the public attention it would receive. Tallahassee police have defended their handling of the case.
The woman told police she had been drinking at a bar with friends and went home with a man she didn't know. She said the alleged assault took place at an off-campus apartment, but she couldn't remember where it was.
A month later, she identified her alleged attacker as the quarterback. Winston's attorney Tim Jansen said the sex was consensual.