The strange case of Dezmine Wells

August, 29, 2012
8/29/12
3:56
PM ET
Just over a week ago, Xavier University released a sudden and shocking statement: Men's basketball player Dezmine Wells -- the likely 2012-13 star of the Musketeers' nationally renowned hoops program -- had been expelled from the school for "a serious violation of the Code of Student Conduct." No reason was given or alleged charge levied. But for such a strong and swift move, the allegation had to be serious. Nothing less made sense.

In the week since, more details have come to light. The charge, which was litigated before the XU Conduct Board, involved allegations of sexual assault. Then, on Tuesday an Ohio grand jury rejected criminal charges against Wells, and made a strong statement about the diligence -- or lack thereof -- of XU's internal expulsion deliberations:
“The Grand Jury declined to charge Dezmine Wells with any criminal offense,” [Hamilton County prosecutor Joe] Deters said in a statement. “I have nothing but the greatest respect for Xavier University, and in particular (president) Father (Michael) Graham. I would sincerely hope the institution would revisit this situation.”

“There is something seriously flawed with a procedure where a young man and his accuser appear before a group of people, which I would suggest probably isn’t very well trained in assessing these types of cases, and they sit there and tell their stories. No lawyers, nothing. There’s just something wrong with that,” Deters said.

That would seem like the best of news for Wells: An actual grand jury bound by the strictures of the vaunted American legal system looked at his case and declined to charge him with anything, and an actual prosecutor made a strong statement in his favor. If Xavier was worried about its own legal cover in the case of a high-profile sexual assault, or even optics, it needn't worry any more. Wells could come back to the school and the team, and everything would be forgotten, right?

Wrong. As ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil learned Tuesday, within hours the school released a statement distinguishing its own proceedings from that of the justice system's, claiming its standard for evidence was different (and had been satisfied), cited other federal legal obligations, and reiterated that the expulsion would remain. From O'Neil:
"Federal Law (Title IX) and Federal Regulations and Guidances prohibit Universities from ceding student conduct matters to the criminal justice system. The Federal Law requires schools to act quickly and all schools, by law, must use the 'preponderance of evidence' standard, whereas the criminal justice system uses the 'probable cause' standard to indict, and the 'beyond a reasonable doubt' standard to convict.

"The process used by the Xavier University Conduct Board is the standard used in American universities. The XU Conduct Board heard evidence that may or may not have been heard by the Grand Jury. After the Conduct Board reached its decision, the matter was considered and upheld by an appeal board of members of the student body, faculty and staff and is final."

Naturally, this left Wells' attorney, Merlyn Shiverdecker, so upset you can practically hear the anger in his voice jump off the page:
"That is self-serving gobbledygook," Shiverdecker told ESPN.com after being read Xavier's statement. "I think they were committed to the process and not the fairness of the outcome. Dez Wells got thrown under a bus because of their commitment to the process."

"Within two hours of being exonerated, they say this? Why in the hell would he want to go back there?" Shiverdecker said. "My goal was not to lambast Xavier University. My goal was to exonerate Dez, to clear his name. We have done all we can to do that. I'm tickled we were able to do that today, that prosecutor made his statements public. But if Xavier wants to keep their blinders on, there's nothing nobody can do to stop them."

Shiverdecker also took issue with the university's implication that the grand jury did not see all of the same evidence as the XU Conduct Board ("I personally gave the prosecutor's office every piece of paper, every exhibit, every report, every statement, every hospital report plus a complete transcript of the hearing," he said) and fumed at the idea that XU's legal standard was any different (or should be any different) than that of the American justice system.

All of which left Wells exactly where he was a week ago: expelled from school, kicked off his team, unsure of his future. The good news? His name has been cleared, and rather forcefully, by a grand jury. But that doesn't change his current predicament: finding a new place to play basketball in a rather short period of time.

On Wednesday afternoon, Wells spoke for the first time with CBS's Jeff Goodman, and he was surprisingly forgiving in his stance toward Xavier. He said the incident he was expelled for began as a game of "Truth or Dare," but maintained that the culminating incident was consensual. And he highlighted what may be the real reasons he was caught up in such a messy spat between Hamilton County legal officials and Xavier University.
"It's been tough, but I am honestly thankful for everything Xavier has done for me," Wells said. [...]

"I didn't think the process was fair. I went into it as guilty and having to prove my innocence instead of them having to prove that I was guilty," he said from his home in North Carolina. "I feel like everyone rushed the process and panicked. They went with a gut feel. I understand the severity of the accusations. Rape is one of the highest felonies in the world, but I think they just panicked. But I still appreciate everything that Xavier has done for me," he added. [...]

Swift and decisive action hadn't been taken when it came to sexual assault incidents on the campus and the school was cited by The United States Department of Education for violating anti-discrimination laws after multiple sexual assault victims claimed not enough action was taken following their allegations.

"I do think what happened previously at Xavier affected what they did with me," Wells said.

In the end, it may be just that simple. Earlier this summer, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights and Xavier came to an agreement forcing the school to comply with federal Title IX anti-discrimination laws, including the start of "multiple training and reporting programs to protect victims of sexual assault and harassment," the Cincinnati Enquirer reported Aug. 1. According to the report "two female Xavier students charged that a male student was twice allowed to remain on campus after being found responsible for sexual assaults," and "a third charged that XU did not treat her fairly in her sexual harassment and stalking claim." Xavier denied all wrongdoing, but agreed to the education department's move nonetheless. As a result, the school fired the top two members of its student-life administration, including Dean of Students Luther Smith.

With that kind of federal oversight breathing down its neck, perhaps it is no surprise Xavier would be especially vigilant in cases to come, particularly when featuring high-profile athletes like Wells. But that well-intentioned anxiety, borne of an admirable (if forced) correction in the school's treatment of sexual assault cases, may well have cost a player his rightful spot at the only place he ever wanted to play college basketball.
"I didn't want to play anywhere else except for Xavier and Coach (Chris) Mack," Wells told Goodman.

Thanks to circumstances apparently beyond his control, that is no longer an option for Dezmine Wells. He will reportedly take visits to Louisville, Memphis and Maryland to find a new home, and he'll do so with some measure of vindication from Tuesday's grand jury decline, but the potential NBA prospect will also be forced to sit out a year while he transfers, and he will do so with an unmistakably marred reputation. It hardly seems fair.

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