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Public Statements Undermining the Viability of the Winston Case


The trial of Jameis Winston has already begun in the court of public opinion.

For the past eight days anyone with a Twitter handle and their own two cents has been able to weigh in on the situation that has surrounded the now week-old sexual assault allegations against Winston. Those allegations became public last Wednesday and since then a torrent of rampant speculation has continued to rage around Florida State and its redshirt freshman quarterback. 

There really is no way to describe this other than a circus, either. If this were an episode of Law and Order you'd criticize the writing as being too unrealistic. There have been fingers pointed, information has been leaked and conflicting statements have been made by the State Attorney, Tallahassee Police Department and the victim's family. 

And ironically, as Winston's trial in the court of public opinion continues it may be the very public nature of one of those opinions that will ultimately keep a real trial from playing out in a real court.

If Winston is charged -- and that is the 64,000 dollar question at this point -- pre-trial statements from the family of the victim and state attorney Willie Meggs could ultimately go a long ways towards getting the case tossed out and the charges dismissed -- at least in the opinion of some legal experts.

The statement from the family of the victim is less disruptive to due process but could still come into play at a later stage.

A victim can say whatever they want in a case like this. That being said, anything said can also be used as evidence. As one attorney told me, "if a victim is able to develop substantial local press, it could form the basis for an attorney to move to change venue.  The statements by a victim are also admissible at trial for, at least, impeachment of motive -- often used to explore whether the victim is trying to get a book deal, make money through public appearances, etc."

The more 'troublesome' of the public statements made in regard to this case was made by state attorney Willie Meggs though. Over the weekend Meggs told the AP: "Now they've been talking to lawyers, they've been talking to each other and getting their stories together. ... People have had 11 months to decide what they're going to say."

Attorneys are governed by the following rule in Florida:

Rule 4-3.6 Trial Publicity

(a) Prejudicial Extrajudicial Statements Prohibited.
lawyer shall not make an extrajudicial statement that a reasonable person would expect to be disseminated by means of public communication if the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that it will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding due to its creation of an imminent and substantial detrimental effect on that proceeding.

In addition, The American Bar Association has the following special rule on prosecutors. It has not been adopted in Florida, thus Florida attorneys are not bound by it, but it is worth noting.

Rule 3.8 (f) except for statements that are necessary to inform the public of the nature and extent of the prosecutor's action and that serve a legitimate law enforcement purpose, refrain from making extrajudicial comments that have a substantial likelihood of heightening public condemnation of the accused and exercise reasonable care to prevent investigators, law enforcement personnel, employees or other persons assisting or associated with the prosecutor in a criminal case from making an extrajudicial statement that the prosecutor would be prohibited from making under Rule 3.6 or this Rule.

Last Saturday Meggs stopped just short of telling the Associated Press, a national news organization, that Jameis Winston and his associates were perpetrating a massive cover-up.

In this case, as one attorney told me, Meggs' comment "is particularly troublesome, because it essentially alleges a conspiracy to obstruct justice and subordination of perjury, which are very serious allegations and probably not something that the prosecutor could prove. ... A statement like that can be used as a basis to file a motion to dismiss, alleging that the statements are so inflammatory and prejudicial that the defendant, particularly in light of his prominence and the knowledge that it would be used in the press, require a dismissal."

Jameis Winston could still be charged. That is well within the realm of possibility. But Willie Meggs -- who has accused the TPD of botching this investigation -- may have already laid the foundation for Winston's attorney to have this case thrown out. 


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