Bernie Fine's day of vindication should serve as lesson in caution for public, media

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

From the start, the reaction to the investigation into the Bernie Fine case was nearly as troubling as the accusations of the Bernie Fine case.

In a post-Jerry Sandusky world, the similarities between a former Penn State assistant football coach (Sandusky) and a current Syracuse assistant basketball coach (Fine) involved in sexual molestation allegations produced assumptions that overwhelmed the reality of the situation and an understanding of the judicial process.

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Investigators found no evidence of abuse by former Syracuse assistant Bernie Fine. (AP)

In November 2011, Sandusky was charged by a grand jury with 52 counts of sexually molesting 10 boys. It was the end of a significant, three-year state police investigation. No less than the attorney general of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania made the charges. Eight of the boys testified in person in front of the grand jury, as did supporting witnesses and Sandusky coworkers. It was an exhaustive process just to get the charges.

Sandusky was eventually convicted of 45 charges and sentenced to at least 30 years in prison.

In November 2011, Bernie Fine was accused on ESPN by two former Syracuse ball boys of sexually abusing them in the 1980s. Local police previously looked into the case and declined to press charges. A similar Syracuse University investigation also found it had no merit.

On Friday, federal authorities dropped the investigation completely after claiming to interviewing 130 witnesses and sorting through 100,000 pages of documents and finding no evidence to support the claims.

Neither Bernie Fine nor anyone else will be charged, the local U.S. Attorney's Office said.

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For Fine it is a day of vindication, although one that fails to undo the damage of the allegations. He lost his reputation, had every bit of family dirty laundry aired out and no longer has what was once a respected career as a college basketball coach. Even though he should be considered 100 percent innocent – not just presumed innocent – his name, after one hellacious year, is still damaged and many people will still feel he was guilty of something.

Sadly, you just can't un-ring that bell.

For everyone else, this should serve as a day of caution. The Fine case was, in some ways, as frightening as the Sandusky one.

Not just because the charges were eventually dropped after a firestorm of coverage and anger. More troubling is that it was the significant lack of awareness about how criminal investigations and cases work that produced said firestorm and anger.

Again, the Sandusky case became public at the end of a thorough investigation, with actual detailed charges filed and a 23-page grand jury report available as support.

The Fine case became public at the start of the process, with tenuous allegations by questionable witnesses about acts that fell outside the statute of limitations. ESPN made its decision to go with the story and it will have to answer for that.

Everyone else should have hesitated to react as aggressively to ESPN's initial story.

This was never about making a judgment call on the believability of the accusers' story or Fine's story or any other bit of information. This was about acknowledging where in the game everything stood and avoiding declaring an outcome before the investigation even began.

Other than their occupations – assistant college athletics coaches – the Sandusky and Fine cases were two completely different situations at two completely different stages of inquiry. The early process that eventually exonerated Fine hadn't even begun. With Sandusky it was over.

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This sounds like a hindsight lecture. And unfortunately some will take this as patting my own back, although that isn't my intention. The obvious question though is my own culpability as a member of the media.

I wrote just one direct column on this subject. Weeks after the allegations I scolded Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim for attacking Fine's accusers originally but then refusing comment when a bizarre and potentially troubling taped conversation involving Fine's wife came out.

I didn't think Boeheim should have it both ways, blasting witnesses on a good day, clamming up on a bad one. He later apologized for questioning the honesty of accusers in the first place, acknowledging he shouldn't have put his powerful voice into the process and admitting he acted rashly out of loyalty.

I probably shouldn't have even written about Boeheim. I had planned on sitting out the Fine case altogether, and despite repeatedly reiterating there were no similarities to the Sandusky case – and that this case had far to go to even reach the charging stage – I allowed the explosiveness of the tape to draw me in.

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The Sandusky case brought great awareness to the crime of child sexual abuse and hopefully it leads to better prevention and prosecution of those acts. The fear, though, is it opens up a witch hunt where the reaction to any allegation is treated as a conviction.

There is an investigative and legal process that deserves to play out, especially in these kinds of cases because the mere suggestion of such an act can be irrevocably staining. The public and media don't have to abide by the standards of the legal system. We operate in the court of public opinion. But on something like this, if not caution, then at least awareness of procedure, isn't a bad thing.

The reason Bernie Fine never received his presumption of innocence in a court of law is because he never even got as far as an arraignment. Fine, however, was instantaneously convicted by too much of the public.

He was never Jerry Sandusky, though. He was treated that way.

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