ANNAPOLIS, MD. — The case of three former U.S. Naval Academy football players accused of sexually assaulting a fellow midshipman at an off-campus toga party has renewed calls for academy leaders to face tough accountability as the military tries to curb what has become a persistent and embarrassing problem.
The Defense Department estimates thousands of sexual assaults go unreported, and some say the training ground for future military leaders is a natural starting point to tackle the problem.
The Navy says it exhaustively investigated the latest case and is trying to put an end to midshipmen living and partying in off-campus homes, though two U.S. senators are among the critics calling for greater accountability for the superintendent and other leaders.
In a June letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, shortly after the latest case at the Naval Academy made headlines, Sen. Barbara Mikulski wrote that she was “deeply troubled by the lackluster response from the superintendents to increasing rates of sexual assault within their academies.”
Mikulski, a member of the Naval Academy’s Board of Visitors, has proposed creating a commission that would in part examine how well sexual assault cases are handled by superintendents at U.S. military academies, who will lead an increasing number of female and openly gay students in coming years.
Others have said high-ranking officials like superintendents have far too much personally at stake to have a say in whether sex assault cases are brought to trial.
An attorney for the accuser in the current case has sued, asking a federal judge to order that the academy’s superintendent, Vice Adm. Michael Miller, recuse himself from deciding whether Midshipmen Tra’ves Bush, Josh Tate and Eric Graham will face a court-martial. Bush and Tate are charged with aggravated sexual assault, while Graham is charged with abusive sexual contact.
Attorney Susan Burke wrote in the lawsuit that the superintendent “intentionally subverted the judicial process” to punish the alleged victim with abusive badgering from three legal defense teams over long hours for days.
The Navy has declined to comment on the lawsuit because the case is pending.
In the broader context of the entire military, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand contends that commanders should be removed from the process of deciding whether crimes go to trial and be replaced by seasoned trial lawyers with experience in such cases. Military leaders have opposed the idea, saying that removing the decision from their purview would undercut the ability of officers to maintain good order and discipline.
Retired Col. Morris Davis, who led an investigation into a highly-publicized sexual assault case in 2003 at the U.S. Air Force Academy, said the case now before the Naval Academy reminds him of the calls for change he heard 10 years ago. Davis said he believes the military will need to change its culture from within to make sexual assault as abhorrent as other crimes students consider deeply dishonorable.
In the current case, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service began investigating within days of an April 2012 “Toga and Yoga” party — during which men wore togas and women wore yoga pants — at an off-campus party house dubbed “the Black Pineapple” and used by football players.
The alleged victim initially did not want to pursue charges and testified last month that she has no memory of being assaulted and heard secondhand that she had sex with several people at the party.
The case was reopened in January, when the alleged victim began cooperating with Navy investigators and eventually took part in wiretapping of possible suspects.
In the midst of the investigation, President Barack Obama emphasized the importance of stamping out sexual assault during his speech to this year’s graduating class on May 24.
Burke went public days later, disclosing the investigation and what her client knew. On June 19, the superintendent forwarded charges against the three midshipmen to a hearing to help determine whether they will face a court-martial.
Burke, an outspoken lawyer who has represented more than 200 sexual assault victims, has accused the academy of trying to sweep the case under the rug to protect its reputation.
In the aftermath of the case, the academy has taken added steps to stop sexual assault. Capt. William Byrne, the commandant whose role is similar to that of a dean of students at a civilian college, told reporters last month about plans to make training to prevent sexual assault a part of the regular academic work day.