The Johnson County district attorney stood alone behind five microphones and a dozen or so recording devices in a gray suit and blue tie to give news that can make no human happy. He shifted his feet and admitted frustration. At times, he skipped over or into words.
This was a big moment for Stephen Howe, and he met it wishing he had more. His office and other agencies have spent more than a month investigating child abuse allegations involving the 3-year-old son of Chiefs star Tyreek Hill and his fiancee, Crystal Espinal.
Howe said he believes a crime was committed. Said he believes someone hurt the child, causing injuries that The Star has reported included a broken arm. But Howe said Wednesday that he doesn’t have enough evidence to prove who did it beyond a reasonable doubt.
He was asked if that means the system failed an injured boy.
“In a sense, yes,” he said.
His office’s conclusion is unsatisfying for everyone involved. On a human level, a child was hurt and nobody will be charged. The highest priority of our legal system should be the protection of children. Howe told reporters that the child is now safe, and the state’s involvement isn’t over, but still.
This is the district attorney believing child abuse occurred and knowing the perpetrator will go unpunished. Howe said his office is “deeply troubled” and “concerned about the health and welfare of the child.”
How could anyone be pleased with that?
“We have a heightened responsibility to protect those individuals (who can’t protect themselves), and so it bothers us when we see something that’s happened to a child like this and we can’t do anything about it,” he said. “Our criminal justice system is based on the fact that we’d rather let guilty people go free than convict innocent people.”
Way down on the scale of importance is football. This is a bad spot for the Chiefs, who will now decide whether and how much to pay a star receiver involved in a child abuse investigation that included him and his fiancee temporarily losing custody of their child.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will likely suspend Hill. Howe said he did not respond to requests for information from the league, and did not expect to in the future. But unless Goodell is somehow convinced Espinal or someone other than Hill committed this crime, the Chiefs should expect punishment from the NFL.
There is precedent of suspensions without charges, and Goodell is hyper-aware of and guided by public sentiment. Ezekiel Elliott was suspended six games in 2017 after an investigation of domestic assault that did not result in charges, for instance.
The truth is that this was always going to be a challenging case to prosecute. The obvious reason:
“Children can’t necessarily speak for themselves,” Howe said. “So that becomes a very difficult situation.”
But there’s another reason. Hill and Espinal each had more to lose than custody. Hill has made $1.8 million in three NFL seasons. He was in line for a long-term extension that was expected to approach the one signed by receiver Odell Beckham: five years for $95 million.
This investigation would help determine what kind of windfall Hill would receive. Hill and Espinal walked into the courthouse holding hands last week. They made their decision, together.
The only thing that truly matters is that the child is safe. Howe said state agencies would stay involved, which is better than nothing, but there is still little to believe in here beyond hope.
The rest, sadly, is largely posturing and grandstanding. Whatever you believed yesterday, you almost certainly believe today. If you thought Hill hurt the child, you have heard nothing to change your mind. If you thought Hill was always innocent then, well, no charges.
The lone certainty here is that a child was let down by the system, and that if anyone is looking for moral guidance from professional sports or any other highly competitive industry, they, too, will be continually let down.
That’s simply not what sports is set up to be. The same is true at times in our criminal justice system. Charges and even convictions don’t always mean a crime occurred, and the opposite is also true. We do the best we can and we move on.
The Chiefs and NFL will face difficult decisions now. Those entities hoped for clean closure from this investigation, one way or the other. Instead they see a frustrated district attorney telling the world a crime occurred.
This investigation had the potential to be so damning the Chiefs would release Hill, or so conclusively in his favor they could call it an unfair knock on his character.
Neither happened, so now the league must decide on a potential punishment and the team must decide how much it’s willing to commit to a generational talent with a messy past.
Somewhere along the way, Chiefs fans will have a decision to make, too. Many will support Hill unconditionally, others with reservations, and some not at all. None of those reactions is wrong. Each will feel less than satisfying.
And maybe that’s the only result that was ever possible.