December 2, 2014 / 4:43 PM / 3 years ago

Florida State quarterback Winston faces conduct hearing on rape accusation

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Oct 11, 2014; Syracuse, NY, USA; Florida State Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston (5) drops back to pass against the Syracuse Orange during the third quarter at the Carrier Dome. Florida State defeated Syracuse 38-20. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Reuters) - Florida State University star quarterback Jameis Winston, accused of raping a female student nearly two years ago, on Tuesday faced the first day of a student conduct code hearing that both sides hope will resolve a nationally watched case.

Winston, who won the Heisman Trophy last year as the nation's top college football player, is accused of violating the university's standards during an December 2012 incident, which his lawyers have maintained was a consensual sexual encounter.

A Florida state attorney last year found insufficient evidence to file criminal charges against Winston, a sophomore.

However, a conduct code violation requires a significantly lower burden of proof. Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Major Harding, retained by the university to conduct the hearing, could find up to four parts of the code were violated, expected to continue on Wednesday.

Under university protocol, Winston could receive discipline ranging from a reprimand to expulsion if a violation is found.

Three or four witnesses testified during Tuesday's hearing, said John Clune, one of the female accuser's attorneys, who spoke to reporters after the proceeding ended for the day.

"For our client, it was a very empowering day," he said.

Winston left the hearing beside his attorney, ignoring reporters shouting questions as they got into a dark SUV.

"We think this nightmare will be over very soon," said his attorney, David Cornwell, who earlier in the day told reporters the quarterback would truthfully say he never raped his accuser.

In a recent series of off-field incidents, Winston was benched for shouting obscenities in the student union plaza and was cited for shoplifting seafood from a grocery store.

The allegations threaten to cost a shadow over an undefeated season for the Florida State Seminoles, coming as the National Football League faces criticism for its handling of domestic violence and other abuse by its players.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights is also investigating Florida State's handling of the case.

"There are so many women who have been victims of athlete violence around the country and have had to deal with their cases being swept under the rug," Clune said. "This at one point certainly seemed to be one of them."

Writing by Letitia Stein; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Bill Trott, Colleen Jenkins and Steve Orlofsky

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