As Jameis Winston won the 2013 Heisman Trophy, many people were very vocal in their displeasure. Their objection was not on the strength of Winston’s season but rather on his character, a component part of the Heisman evaluation process.
Sports websites’ message boards were awash with comments where detractors vociferously accused Mr. Winston of being a criminal, specifically a rapist. They accused the Tallahassee Police Department of being totally incompetent or, worse yet, totally corrupt. They sometimes accused people who defend Wilson as blaming the victim. They have evoked a moral authority based upon what they believe to be true, and that is their right. Nonetheless, our legal system guarantees due process under the law because without it, simple accusations could totally destroy and discredit innocent individuals.
Mr. Wilson received his right to due process. He also exercised his right to remain silent during the media coverage, a move he was roundly criticized for. Many commentators took his silence as a means to infer his guilt.
The story out of Tallahassee was indeed bizarre. Inconsistencies with the reported timelines of events, details of the police report, and poor-quality witness accounts characterized the case. It may well be the case that the young woman was sexually assaulted, however what we must remember is that the investigation deemed that there was insufficient evidence to proceed to charge Mr. Winston. Once that determination had been made, the events of what happened, legally speaking, were marginalized in importance.
To that end, just because someone is not charged, that does not mean they are not guilty. What it indicates is that the burden of proof was insufficient to proceed to a charge, much less a conviction. It also means that by law, that person must be presumed innocent as they have not been proven guilty. In fact, even had Mr. Wilson been charged that presumption of innocence should have still been in place until the completion of his trial.
We must not jump from any point of the legal process to a final verdict. That is a central tenet in our legal system (though it is all too often ignored by the press and the public). Legally speaking, neither an accusation nor a charge does a guilty person make. Yet both can result in the public perception of the accused's guilt, whether or not the accused is in fact guilty.
That being said, there is a difference between de jure and de facto guilt, and we should be aware of that. Clearly people get away with crimes all the time. We know that because we can compare victimization surveys to conviction statistics and see that there is a disparity. However, what matters, legally speaking, is what the legal process yields.
Comparatively, de facto guilt’s evidently its existence is harder to prove and establish. It can be legitimately true or it can also be perceived. The latter is problematic because, socially speaking, both de facto and perceived guilt erode trust in a person. Sometimes guilt is not binary; it may be impossible to answer a simple yes or no in response the question of whether or not a person is guilty. Moreover, just because one perceives that another is guilty does not necessarily make it true in any sort of normative sense.
Taking away someone’s freedom, thus revoking their full membership from free society, is an undoubtedly a severe punishment. That is why the standards of proof are high in courts and why de jure guilt is what must be considered over de facto guilt.
While the law has not proceeded to revoke Mr. Wilson’s membership from society, the accusation against him has undoubtedly eroded it. He was fortunate that his case was resolved reasonably quickly. Had that not been the case, he would have been subjected to a protracted assault on his character. Even if Winston had not been charged at the end that process, the damage to his reputation and to his emotional wellbeing would have been so great that it could have negatively affected him for the rest of his life. This sometimes happens to innocent people, and an innocent person does not deserve that treatment.
Mr. Wilson’s actions will be scrutinized throughout the rest of his time in the public eye. As doubt has been raised about innocence in the matter, he will always have people who are eager to cast him as a depraved and evil person, a rapist. He will also become an easy target for anyone who wishes to make him so, thus meaning that he must carefully behave for the next several years if he is to avoid further negative press.
One might suggest that if Mr. Wilson becomes a successful professional player and avoids trouble he might be able to rebuild the positive image he possessed before the accusations against him were made public. After all, Ray Lewis was accused of murder and is now a football commentator for ESPN. This might be the case; however the nature of the crime Mr. Wilson was accused of makes this outcome more unlikely. We mustn’t forget that sexual assault carries a tremendous amount of stigma not only for the victim but also for the accused.
It is the type of accusation that, when levied against innocent people, destroys lives and torpedoes careers. And that is precisely why due process under the law must be observed and judgment ought to be withheld until the legal process has been completed.
Rape is a serious topic. If you or someone you know has been a victim the following numbers and sites may be useful.
United States: the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1.800.656.HOPE
For international help centers please refer to this list: http://www.rainn.org/get-help/sexual-assault-and-rape-international-resources