Crystal Mangum was found guilty of second-degree murder a couple of weeks ago.
That name might not mean anything to you anymore, or it might sound vaguely familiar, like an echo from several years ago. It is. Crystal Mangum was the woman who, in 2006, falsely accused three Duke lacrosse players of having raped her in a story that brought us face to face with so many of the issues that still haunt our nation: The role of race and privilege in our system of justice, the role of intercollegiate sports in our higher education system and our society, and the challenges of cutting through the fog of memory and the vagueness of human interactions to find the truth.
In many ways, Crystal Mangum still shapes this country's discussion when it comes to high-profile athletes accused of sexual assault. Before the Duke lacrosse case, it seemed much easier to jump to the conclusion that the athlete did it, that of course he denies it, and that the accuser only walked away (if she did) because of a settlement or the mental anguish that would be caused by moving ahead with the case. Afterward, it seemed just as reasonable to conclude that maybe he didn't do it, that he -- and it's almost always a he -- might just be innocent.
We will find out in a few hours what will happen to Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston in connection with a year-old accusation of sexual assault, but the likeliest outcome is that we will merely find out that he joins the long line of athletes to face claims but not charges, to be the subject of questions but not answers, to see his case ended but not truly resolved. What we know points to Willie Meggs, the state attorney whose jurisdiction covers Tallahassee, standing up at a press conference on Thursday and saying that he does not have the evidence to move forward with a case against Winston.
But what do we do with that? Do we make it a story of the triumph of the human condition, of someone who overcame false claims to once again reach for glory? Do we assume that Winston might really have assaulted the woman, but is once again benefiting from the privileges of being an athlete in a sports-crazed town, just like dozens of men before him? Or do we instead acknowledge that the truth is somewhat more complicated than either of those tales, that perhaps prosecutors are doing the only thing they can do, and that the justice system is sometimes an imperfect instrument for discovering the truth?
Before we go any further, it's important to establish one thing: I don't know what happened at an apartment in Tallahassee late on the night of Dec. 6, or early in the morning of Dec. 7, 2012. And neither do you. If you are more sympathetic to Florida State, of course, you will probably make the case that the expected announcement Thursday proves that Winston is innocent and everyone should simply stop talking about it; if you are less sympathetic to the Seminoles, you're more likely to complain loudly about how Winston got away with a crime and will now likely march unimpeded to the Heisman Trophy and a spot in the BCS National Championship Game.
But without firm evidence -- and there is almost never firm evidence when it comes to sexual assault -- there is no way to know exactly what took place during the incident. DNA testing can establish whether Winston and the young woman had sex, but not whether it was consensual. Eyewitness testimony is infamously unreliable, and only becomes shakier as time passes. (In fact, a recent stunning documentary called "Stories We Tell," which has nothing to do with crime, shows how the memories of two people involved in the same incident can directly contradict each other.)
Time doesn't wait for the fuzzy vagueness of the past, though. There are awards to be handed out and games to be played and no real reason to keep Jameis Winston from either of them if there are no charges in the case. That's the system we have, and it's the only truly fair way to go about it. It does not, however, get to dictate my feelings or my opinions about this case. Those are mine, and they lie somewhere in the in-betweens of this story, in the gray areas of truth that obscure our understanding.
Because in a way, what happens to Jameis Winston is really the least important part of this story. And what happens to the woman who says Winston raped her is not the most important part of this story, at least not in the global sense. It is instead a comment that was made in the course of the investigation, one that has been portrayed sinisterly but now echoes as a warning, almost foreshadowing.
That's the infamous comment that Tallahassee Detective Scott Angulo reportedly made to the lawyer for the woman some time after "early January," when she identified Winston as the man she said sexually assaulted her and retained an attorney because of it. According to the woman's family:
When the attorney contacted Detective Angulo immediately after Winston was identified, Detective Angulo told the attorney that Tallahassee was 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.
Once again, I have no idea whether Angulo actually made that comment. But it sound plausible. What I also don't know is Angulo's intention in saying that, what motivated him to convey that message.
Because it's true. The sad, sickening fact is that whatever the merits of the woman's claims, she was going to be raked over the coals; her life was going to be made miserable. We've seen it before, and perhaps it's more acceptable since Crystal Mangum made her reckless allegations, or maybe it just seems that way because we notice it more now. But the critics of the woman didn't wait for Meggs to make his decision before they began raining vile comments on her head or saying that maybe it wasn't really rape, but some murky thing in between, something where what Winston did wasn't really wrong, you see, even if the woman didn't really want to have sex.
To many of these people, Winston was innocent until proven guilty. But his accuser was already in the wrong.
I come at this from a unique perspective, or at least what would appear to be a unique perspective. I know people who have been raped. I have seen the pain that a brutal act inflicts on its victims, long after the incident itself is over. If you think that rape is about an unwanted moment, then you don't know much about it at all. Because its aftereffects reverberate for years, often for as long as the victim lives. It is, to my mind, the worse thing that any human being can do to another human being short of murder.
Like I said: My perspective isn't all that unique in one respect. The numbers say that it is overwhelmingly likely that you know someone who was raped. Studies show that one sixth of American women have been the victims of either a rape or an attempted rape. About 3 percent of men share that fate. That's more than 20 million people. You might not know that someone you love or consider a friend has been raped, but in all likelihood, someone you love or consider a friend has been raped.
And yet we are so casual nowadays when we talk about rape. There's a TV show built entirely around sexual crimes. There has been a #rapeface hashtag that RAINN -- the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network -- successfully fought to have removed from Instagram. (Warning: The press release on this issue does show some results of a search for the hashtag. It's here.) And how many of us have used rape to describe a football game -- self included, I'm ashamed to say, several years ago -- or cavalierly tossed the word around in a joking manner? (Note: No, rape jokes aren't funny. In fact, they will draw an automatic ban at Team Speed Kills, no questions asked.)
We do that, I think, because it makes us feel more comfortable with the epidemic that we know is in our midst, but an epidemic we don't want to confront. If it's a TV show or a joke, maybe it's not all that bad. If it's just like losing to the cross-town rival by 50, then maybe we can avoid dealing with just how evil it is, and how common it is.
And maybe we don't have to flinch when we shrug off what Jameis Winston's alleged victim has to say. Because even if she's telling the truth, maybe what he did wasn't really all that bad.
I suspect that, of the narratives listed above, most of the commentary over the next few weeks will go with the first: The story of Jameis Winston, the quarterback who squinted to see the signs, who stood accused of sexual assault, and who is now thriving after all that adversity. Americans in general, and those of us who care about sports in particular, love redemption stories. They feel uplifting and have what seems to be a relatively clear beginning, middle and end.
But sexual assault is not like that. There is often very little that is clear about it, and it is often a story without a real end. Because whether the woman who accused Jameis Winston is like Crystal Mangum or is a woman betrayed by our justice system or is something in between, one of the next true victims of sexual assault is watching what is happening right now. That victim is seeing the tweets and the questions and all of the predictions of Detective Angulo come true. And one day soon, she will be faced with a stark decision when she decides whether to come forward with her story.
What should she do? What would you?