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DA won't charge Ben, condemns his boorish behavior

| Tuesday, April 13, 2010

MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. — While strongly condemning the boorish behavior of Big Ben, District Attorney Fred Bright said yesterday that he would not charge Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with raping a female college student during a night of barhopping.

"The sexual allegation against Mr. Roethlisberger cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt," said Bright, chief prosecutor for the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit. "Therefore, there will be no arrest made nor criminal prosecution of Mr. Roethlisberger for his actions here on March 5, 2010."

Bright said that his decision was "final" and that he "knew pretty early on the way this case was going," even before the young Georgia College and State University accuser, her family and their attorneys asked him to drop the case in a March 17 letter.

Bright said there was plenty of blame to go around for the scandal that exploded in this college town about 80 miles south of Atlanta, adding that he didn't "prosecute morals," only crimes — and he couldn't prove Roethlisberger had committed any.

"There was too much drinking going on," Bright said. "If he were my son, the best way I could answer it is, 'Ben, grow up. Come on. You're supposed to stand for something. You're the leader. You should be a role model. You don't need to put yourself in this position anymore.'"

Roethlisberger's legal team said Bright made the right call to kick the case.

"During the course of this matter, from the day the investigation began, we have supplied relevant information to the district attorney," said Atlanta attorney Edward T.M. Garland. "We urged the district attorney to investigate the matter fully, and we are pleased to see that he has done so."

At Steelers headquarters last night, Roethlisberger told reporters he was grateful no charges were filed. He declined to answer any questions.

He said he was "happy to put this behind me and move forward. I am truly sorry for the disappointment and negative attention I have brought to my family, my teammates, my coaches, the Rooneys and the NFL."

"I understand that the opportunities I have been blessed with are a privilege and that much is expected to be as quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers," he continued. "I absolutely want to be the leader this team deserves, valued in the community and a role model to kids. I have much work to do to earn this trust, and I'm committed to improving and showing everyone my true values."

Still pending against Roethlisberger is a lawsuit filed last year by a hotel worker in Nevada, who claims the quarterback raped her in a Lake Tahoe hotel room in July 2008 while attending a celebrity golf event. Roethlisberger has denied any wrongdoing.

Dirty details

Roethlisberger's troubles began March 4 after he traveled the 30 miles from his lakeside mansion in the ritzy Great Waters section of Putnam County to Milledgeville.

According to the report filed by Milledgeville police and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Roethlisberger's "Benapalooza" entourage of as many as 10 men descended in two vehicles on the Velvet Elvis bar around 10:30 p.m. They had come to celebrate the quarterback's 28th birthday, Bright said.

That's where he met the 20-year-old student who four hours later would accuse him of raping her in the staff restroom flanking the VIP room of the Capital City nightclub.

Bright said a pin worn by the woman that might signal a willingness to engage in sexual intercourse piqued Roethlisberger's interest and triggered conversations -- "some of a sexual nature" - throughout the evening.

After midnight, the two parties met up at the Capital City. The district attorney said Roethlisberger's two burly bodyguards, off-duty Pennsylvania State Trooper Ed Joyner and Coraopolis police Officer Tony Barravecchio, admitted the accuser and other young women into the VIP room but barred any men not part of Roethlisberger's entourage.

With a barmaid plopping shots of liquor before Roethlisberger, his buddies and the women, by the early hours of March 5 the young accuser was "highly intoxicated," according to Bright, who will not charge Roethlisberger with giving underage drinkers the booze.

Bright said one of Roethlisberger's bodyguards guided the young woman down a narrow hallway into the staff restroom, perhaps because she felt ill, and the quarterback followed her. No security cameras or witnesses were able to detail what happened in there.

Bright said details remain "foggy" because of conflicting stories about what transpired.

Bright said one of the accuser's sorority sisters and another friend who had been ejected from the VIP room -- perhaps at Roethlisberger's insistence -- told the bar's manager and the quarterback's bodyguards that their friend was too drunk to be left alone with him.

But none of Roethlisberger's party told authorities that anything sexual happened between the quarterback and his accuser, and the tavern manager informed the young women that they could "check on her" by going through a downstairs hallway, which they didn't do, according to Bright.

Friends discovered the young woman about a block away from the Capital City about 2:30 a.m., shortly after the downtown taverns began closing. They flagged down a Milledgeville officer, and the investigation began.

Bright said the intoxicated woman initially told authorities that no rape had occurred. But about 13 hours later, she told investigators Roethlisberger had sexually assaulted her.

In his brief statement to Milledgeville investigators before invoking his right to seek legal counsel, Roethlisberger said the woman might have fallen and hurt her head.

An Oconee Regional Medical Center emergency room doctor and two nurses determined there was "a superficial laceration and bruising and slight bleeding in the genital area," but that everything was "normal," according to Bright. The physician could not spot a head injury or deduce if there was "any kind of trauma or sexual assault."

Bright said the rape kit collected from the young accuser "found no evidence of semen or discharge." Initial testing by Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime lab analysts in Atlanta found that "human male DNA" was present, but additional tests "would not yield a profile" that could be compared to Roethlisberger and the collected material was "so minute" that further analysis would be "futile," according to Bright.

Roethlisberger never gave police a second interview, invoking his right to remain silent.

Tom Davis, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's special agent in charge for Baldwin County, said Roethlisberger's silence did not hamper the investigation.

Plea to not prosecute

Bright released the March 17 letter sent by attorney David F. Walbert, who represents the accuser, asking the district attorney to drop the case.

The Trib does not name alleged victims of sexual assault. Bright described her as a "nice lady from a nice family" in the northern Atlanta suburbs who never recanted her unproven allegations.

"What is obvious in looking forward is that a criminal trial would be a very intrusive personal experience for a complainant in this situation, given the extraordinary media attention that would be inevitable," wrote Walbert in his letter. "The media coverage to date, and the efforts of the media to access our client, have been unnerving, to say the least."

Football fallout

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Commissioner Roger Goodell will meet with Roethlisberger "privately, at the appropriate time."

In a statement, Steelers President Art Rooney II said he had met with Roethlisberger "on a number of occasions, not only to discuss this incident but also to discuss his commitment to making sure something like this never happens again."

"The Pittsburgh Steelers take conduct of players and staff very seriously. Ben will now have to work hard to earn back the respect and trust of Steelers fans, and to live up to the leadership responsibilities we all expect of him."

Union spokesman Carl Francis said the National Football League Players Association would monitor Roethlisberger's fate.

"Yes, we could play a role, depending on his discussions with the commissioner," Francis said. "We have to wait to hear the results of his discussion with the commissioner or any action by the club."

Additional Information:

Uncooperative accuser

When the Georgia college student who leveled a sexual assault allegation against Ben Roethlisberger told prosecutors she did not want them to proceed with a case, it became harder for them to bring charges, local lawyers said Monday.

'Unless the victim is on board, it certainly makes prosecution very difficult,' said Washington County District Attorney Steve Toprani.

Authorities in Georgia could have proceeded with a case and even subpoenaed the woman to testify, several former prosecutors said, but they would have needed strong physical evidence.

Given the woman's reluctance and the quality of material available, Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit District Attorney Fred Bright said he will not charge the Steelers quarterback.

The announcement doesn't mean the prosecutor believes nothing happened, just that he does not have a strong enough case to win a conviction, said Mary Beth Buchanan, a former U.S. attorney for Western Pennsylvania. That could change if the woman ever decides she wants to help prosecutors, Buchanan said.

'It certainly makes it more difficult for a prosecutor to bring a case without the opportunity to present all the evidence,' she said. 'If a victim is unwilling to testify, it does take away a large part of prosecutorial evidence.'

Based on Bright's description of the physical evidence, several lawyers questioned whether a case could have been made. Bright said officials obtained male DNA from the woman, but not enough to create a profile of the man for comparison. He said the woman had a cut and bruise in her genital area, but doctors could not definitely say they were the result of an assault.

'In my opinion, there was absolutely enough evidence to go forward, had the girl wanted to testify,' said Patrick Thomassey, a defense attorney and former Allegheny County prosecutor. 'It's simply that she didn't want it to go forward, and that's why it's not going forward.'

Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, a lawyer, expert on forensic evidence and the former Allegheny County coroner, said he was 'puzzled' by investigators' inability to build a profile from DNA evidence, saying it takes only a very small amount of material.

The more weaknesses that exist in the possible testimony, the more prosecutors have to rely on physical evidence, said Thomas Farrell, a defense attorney and former federal prosecutor. Without clear-cut evidence and with an unwilling victim, any prosecutor faces long odds of winning a conviction, he said.

'It makes a case I don't think a DA would prosecute against anyone, football player or not,' he said.

? Andrew Conte

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