Lawyer: FSU isn't following its policy

ByMark Schlabach ESPN logo
Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Florida Statequarterback Jameis Winston's attorney has challenged why the university plans to conduct a disciplinary hearing nearly two years after Winston was accused of sexually assaulting a former FSU student in December 2012.

In a letter sent to FSU general counsel Carolyn Egan on Tuesday, Atlanta-based attorney David Cornwellasked why FSU plans to conduct a hearing, which he said would ignore the university's sexual harassment policy and the U.S. Department of Education's guidelines for conducting a Title IX investigation, which require that an inquiry be completed in a timely manner.

"Winston's cooperation came with the expectation that the process would be fair," Cornwell wrote in the letter. "In this regard, I advise FSU that I believe 'Mr. Winston is entitled to an explanation for FSU's decision to ignore its own policy with respect to the timeliness of the Title IX process.'"

John Clune, the woman's attorney, said Cornwell is only trying to delay the hearing to keep Winston on the field as long as possible.

"It sounds like the plan for Mr. Winston is to stall this out as long as possible to get through this football season," Clune said. "The school needs to be bigger than the football program for the moment and just get this hearing done. It's not rocket science. They do these all the time for students that haven't won the Heisman Trophy."

Last Friday, FSU interim president Garnett Stokes and vice president for student affairs Mary Coburn notified Winston by letter that the school planned to conduct a hearing in which he might be charged with as many as four violations of FSU's student conduct code, including two related to sexual assault.

The university advised Winston that he had until this Friday to contact the school's Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities to schedule an information hearing, in which he would be explained his rights and told how the conduct hearing would proceed. The university would then notify Winston of the hearing's scheduled date at least five days in advance.

But now it seems that the hearing won't be taking place any time soon. During an appearance on ESPN's Outside the Lines on Monday, Cornwell said he would need at least several weeks to review evidence, the police report and the state attorney's investigation of the alleged assault.

Cornwell, who has represented Major League Baseball stars Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in high-profile cases, also indicated he might challenge FSU's procedures, which prohibit a charged student's attorney from interviewing witnesses and the accuser.

In his letter to FSU officials on Tuesday, Cornwell wrote that FSU has indicated it opened its Title IX investigation into the incident in November 2013. He wrote the accuser didn't agree to cooperate with the Title IX investigation until Aug. 6, 2014, more than a year after the alleged incident.

"As her counsel's media blitzes demonstrate, [the accuser's] refusal to cooperate was not the product of a victim reluctant to come forward," Cornwell wrote. "[The accuser] simply rejected the Title IX process in exchange for pursuing a civil litigation strategy against Mr. Winston. The about-face on Title IX was nothing more than a change in legal strategy."

Clune said his client has been more than willing to cooperate with the school's investigation.

"This is nothing more than a sideshow to try to avoid or delay a hearing," Clune said. "There certainly is one student who has consistently failed to cooperate, and it's not my client."

FSU's general provisions and hearing procedures indicate a disciplinary hearing would proceed even if Winston is unwilling to cooperate: "Hearings may be held in the charged student's absence if the charged student fails to appear after proper notice or fails to cooperate in the Student Conduct Code process."

In an unusual decision, FSU officials decided to have an independent hearing observer hear the case, determine whether or not Winston violated the student conduct code and, if necessary, determine his sanctions.

The university has proposed having one of three former Florida Supreme Court justices to hear Winston's case. Winston and the woman who accused him of sexual assault will have an opportunity to strike one of the former judges; if they both choose to strike the same judge, FSU will choose the independent hearing officer from the remaining two.

Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, is expected to play in No. 2 Florida State's game against No. 5 Notre Dameat Doak-Campbell Stadium on Saturday.

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