The lead attorney who evaluated allegations against Dallas Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott says he believes there were a series of violent interactions between Elliott and the woman who accused him of abusing her five times in July.
But Robert S. Tobias, principal assistant city attorney in Columbus (Ohio) and director of its prosecution resources unit, says he couldn’t conclude exactly what happened between Elliott and the woman. The city attorney’s office announced last month it was not pursuing criminal charges against Elliott, citing conflicting and inconsistent information across all incidents.
USA TODAY Sports reported last week that Elliott has met with NFL investigators as part of an ongoing probe by the league, which faces a much lower burden of proof than prosecutors – and has the authority to place Elliott on paid leave pending a decision on potential discipline if Commissioner Roger Goodell believes Elliott may have violated the personal conduct policy.
In response to questions last week from USA TODAY Sports about the case and comparisons to the NFL’s investigation, Tobias wrote in an email: “Over the course of a calendar year, there are thousands of complaints filed through our office where I truly believe the person filing the complaint is a victim of crime. But, for a significant number of them, the reality is that there is insufficient corroborating evidence to approve a criminal charge. And for those complaints that do get charges approved, many face evidentiary hurdles at trial where, as you properly noted, the burden is proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
“For the Ezekiel Elliott matter, I personally believe that there were a series of interactions between Mr. Elliott and (his accuser) where violence occurred. However, given the totality of the circumstances, I could not firmly conclude exactly what happened. Saying something happened versus having sufficient evidence to criminally charge someone are two completely different things. Charging decisions are taken very seriously and we use best efforts to conduct thorough and detailed investigations.”
Asked if he believes Elliott committed some of the violence in those interactions, Tobias declined to expand, deferring to previous emails in which he pointed out the “sole focus” of the investigation by the city attorney’s office was to determine if there was sufficient corroborating evidence to support the woman’s allegations.
USA TODAY does not identify alleged victims of domestic violence.
Tobias said he’d had minimal contact via email with the NFL’s director of investigations, Kia Roberts, who “just wanted to make sure she had all the information available,” but the two had not spoken. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league has had multiple points of contact with Columbus authorities and its investigation remains ongoing, declining to provide details.
Elliott’s accuser said in an interview with police that Elliott choked her, attempted to hit her in the face, threw her against doors and onto a bed and refused to let her leave his apartment on multiple occasions over five days of abuse in July, when Elliott was back near campus at Ohio State prior to Cowboys training camp. But documents released by the Columbus City Attorney’s Office reveal numerous issues with the case.
Witnesses contradicted various portions of the accuser’s accounts. A statement from one key witness – Ayrin Mason, who refers to Elliott as her ex-boyfriend and the accuser as a friend – said the accuser told Mason to lie to police about Elliott pulling the accuser from a car and assaulting her, though the accuser never raised that specific allegation to police. Elliott denied he dated the accuser or lived with her, as she claimed, though he acknowledged the two had a sexual relationship and he helped her with rent and co-signed a car lease with her. Elliott told police the accuser’s injuries were from a fight with another woman – an altercation witnesses and a bar bouncer confirmed, matching the description of a fight observed by police – but Mason told police the accuser had bruises prior to that and had confided earlier that day abuse at the hands of Elliott. Mason said she didn’t want to testify in court.
Under the NFL’s personal conduct policy, a player can be placed on the commissioner’s exempt list (paid leave) if formally charged with a crime of violence, but also “if an investigation leads the Commissioner to believe that you may have violated this Policy by committing any of the conduct identified above, he may act where the circumstances and evidence warrant doing so. This decision will not reflect a finding of guilt or innocence and will not be guided by the same legal standards and considerations that would apply in a criminal trial.”
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A player may be disciplined even if not charged or convicted “if the credible evidence establishes that you engaged in conduct prohibited by this personal conduct policy.” Prohibited conduct includes “actual or threatened physical violence against another person.”
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told USA TODAY Sports on Sunday he hasn’t discussed the issue with Elliott in recent months. Asked if he was satisfied there was nothing more to the allegations, Jones told USA TODAY Sports: “Totally, with everything that was laid out. And all the people that looked at it in detail. I’m well aware of what the officials have up there.”
Elliott's agent and attorney did not immediately have a comment when reached on Monday.
The NFL has faced renewed scrutiny over its handling of domestic violence in light of recent revelations about former New York Giants kicker Josh Brown.
Like Elliott, Brown was not criminally charged. The NFL still suspended Brown one game in August for a previously unreported arrest, then placed Brown on the exempt list and reopened its investigation this month after authorities in Washington released documents that included new allegations and admissions of abuse by Brown in emails and journals provided by his ex-wife.
Strengthened after the Ray Rice fiasco and other incidents in 2014, the NFL’s personal conduct policy recommends a six-game suspension for a first offense involving a violent crime, though that’s flexible based on aggravating or mitigating circumstances.
The No. 4 overall pick in April’s draft, Elliott leads the NFL with 799 rushing yards for the Cowboys, who beat the Philadelphia Eagles 29-23 in overtime Sunday night to improve to 6-1.
Contributing: Jarrett Bell
Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.