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Big Ben to be investigated in excruciating detail

| Friday, March 12, 2010

Questions of credibility, consent and science likely are guiding Georgia authorities as they investigate a sex assault allegation against Ben Roethlisberger, lawyers and police say.

Answering those questions -- and deciding whether to charge the two-time Super Bowl champion -- could take months.

"Sex assault cases often take longer to investigate than other crimes because we'll exhaust all options, check every fact and interview everyone we can, multiple times, before we take someone to jail," said Pittsburgh police Sgt. Larry Scirotto, who isn't involved in the investigation.

A 20-year-old student at Georgia College & State University told police in Milledgeville, Ga., that Roethlisberger, 28, assaulted her in a bathroom near a VIP room of the Capital City bar late March 4 or early March 5. Police released few details about what she told them.

Investigators requested a DNA sample from Roethlisberger, although they did not say what kind of evidence they collected to which it could be compared.

In Pittsburgh, results of DNA testing can take six to eight weeks on average, said Downtown criminal defense attorney Bill Difenderfer.

"DNA has been nothing short of a revolution in cases of sex assault allegations," said University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris. "They can prove that there was activity between two people, if there is any question of the person being accused not being the right one."

In Milledgeville, former Assistant District Attorney Carl Cansino said investigators are "moving very deliberately here."

"It will take a while," said Cansino, a defense attorney in the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit of central Georgia's state court that would hear the Roethlisberger case if it goes to court.

"The Georgia Bureau of Investigation must do all the interviews. Then the agents will submit the evidence they gather in an official report to the district attorney, Fred Bright," Cansino explained. "Fred is meticulous. He's going to spread all that evidence out on a big table. He and his staff will look at all the evidence, taking it all in, looking at the case like they would a big ball of wax to see if there are chargeable offenses."

Roethlisberger can invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refuse to give a statement to investigators, who said they want to interview him and about eight people with him that night.

Investigators can get a search warrant for his DNA, Difenderfer said. Georgia authorities have not asked for one, according to the Baldwin County Clerk of Courts and the magistrate court in Milledgeville.

"If Big Ben doesn't give a statement, that in and of itself sends a very loud message to the cops," Difenderfer said. "It makes him look guilty. But it would be smart for his attorney to put the statement off for a while, until he knows what the full allegations are and what evidence the police do or do not have."

Roethlisberger attorney Edward T.M. Garland did not return a call seeking comment.

The issue of consent can be critical in sexual assault cases and "often very difficult to prove," Scirotto said.

In a sexual situation, someone can revoke consent and say "No" at any time, "and then it's no longer consensual activity," Harris said.

"These cases often come down to one person's word against another, and that's where even DNA evidence won't prove who is telling the truth," Harris said. "That's why you take your time, you run down all the facts and go very slowly, very carefully, and you see whose story matches the facts. Is one person more consistent than another• Does one person have a questionable background?"

The fact that Roethlisberger faces an accusation of sexual assault in Nevada could "taint" him, at least in public opinion, lawyers say. A former employee of Harrah's Casino in Lake Tahoe sued Roethlisberger last year, but no criminal charges were brought. The civil case is pending.

"This new allegation coming up with that prior case hanging out there is just horrible news for Roethlisberger," Difenderfer said. "Whether he did anything wrong or not, the public will believe he has a problem, and that this signals a pattern. He's tainted, his reputation will never recover."

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