There’s a common misconception that prosecutors often are inclined to give high-profile suspects a pass. If anything, the reverse is true; prosecutors realize that law enforcement has limited budgets and a broad mandate that includes the deterrence of crime. By targeting folks who are famous, the deterrent effect has maximum impact. Every phase of the proceedings receives widespread attention, creating an extended commercial for the justice system.
The reality is that the seeds of a big-name guy (or girl) getting a pass often are planted at the front lines, by the things police do, or fail to do. The latest item from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette points out that several flaws in the investigation regarding the claim of sexual assault against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which may have prevented the collection of potentially incriminating evidence — and that also would have given lawyer Ed Garland plenty of fodder for a jury finding of reasonable doubt.
Most glaringly, the police failed to seal the alleged crime scene, a five-foot-wide bathroom in the dark recesses of a Milledgeville, Georgia nightclub. Per Jonathan D. Silver of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, roughly eight hours after the alleged incident, a janitor “scrubbed the sink, floor and toilet with Clorox and Pine-Sol.” (Our guess is that it’s the first time the sink, floor, and toilet in question ever were scrubbed with Clorox and Pine-Sol.) Not surprisingly, the eventual attempt to gather evidence from the bathroom yielded nothing, other than the delightful odor of Clorox and Pine-Sol masking the funk of a five-foot-wide bathroom in the dark recesses of a Milledgeville, Georgia nightclub.
Review of the available documents by Pitt law professor Alexander Lindsay, a former federal and state prosecutor, resulted in a conclusion that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation “worked the hell out of the case but it was muffed at the beginning.”
In response, Milledgeville police chief Woodrow Blue claims that it was “of no consequence” that the bathroom had not been sealed off. (We can understand why he’d say that; we can’t understand why anyone would believe it. Including Blue.)
Then there’s now-former Milledgeville police officer Jerry Blash, who posed for a picture with Roethlisberger before being asked by colleague Willie Goddard to look into the allegation of sexual assault. Blash’s reports reflected that the alleged victim said she wasn’t raped. The statements from the alleged victim and her friends, though having some internal consistencies that independently could have created reasonable doubt in the mind of a jury, were consistent as to the claim of non-consensual sex.
(In this regard, keep in mind that the rape kit turned up only trace evidence of male DNA, and insufficient amount to allow a sample from Roethlisberger to be compared to it. That alone could have derailed a conviction, especially if Roethlisberger’s defense at trial was premised on the position that there was no sexual contact, consensual or otherwise.)
At one point, Blash and the alleged victim “argued on the street with voices raised” regarding whether Blash would take a formal report, according to the alleged victim’s friends. Said GBI special agent Ryan Carmichael, “Blash was frustrated because the victim could barely stand, and that pissed Blash off. . . . The victim’s friends got on Blash’s nerves because he kept asking them were they back there
with her, and they said no.”
The article from Silver also points out just how close authorities came to securing an interview with Roethlisberger, a rare occurrence in criminal probes. On March 8, investigators were negotiating with Garland the terms of a possible sit-down. Garland was considering making Roethlisberger available if the authorities would first provide details of the allegations. (Garland would say that he wanted this information to ensure that Roethlisberger didn’t inadvertently misrepresent indisputable facts not known to Garland; if Garland were being candid, he’d admit that he also wanted to be sure that his client didn’t intentionally misrepresent indisputable facts not known to Garland, either. Put another way, Garland didn’t want Roethlisberger to unwittingly walk into a lie.)
It appeared that the swap would occur, but then district attorney Fred Bright informed a gathering of top prosecutors and investigators that he already had given the information to Garland. (Apparently, Bright’s mentor was Gerald Poindexter.)
None of this means that Roethlisberger did what the alleged victim claims he did. But it shows just how hard it would have been to get a conviction under the very high standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. And given that the alleged victim’s family was leery of the Milledgeville police department — and possibly resigned to the fact that the alleged victim’s version of the events never would be vindicated in a court of law — it’s not surprising that the alleged victim opted not to proceed, especially if at some point between March 5 and March 17 she received a confidential financial offer aimed at securing a full release of all claims she could make against Roethlisberger.
The justice system has one fundamental purpose: the pursuit of truth. In this case, the truth will never be fully known, due to the apparent actions and inactions of authorities, the bungling of the opportunity to talk to Roethlisberger, and the eventual decision that, given the holes in the investigation, no jury would ever reject Ed Garland’s silver-tongued, “if it don’t fit you must acquit” call for a finding of “reasonable doubt,” the two words that have kept many truly guilty men out of prison all in the hopes of ensuring that the innocents among us will never be thrown wrongfully in jail.