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Lawyers: Naval Academy head pushed to pursue assault case

Feb. 10, 2014 - 08:23PM   |  
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WASHINGTON — Lawyers for a former U.S. Naval Academy football player accused of sexual assault argued Monday that political pressure influenced the decision to move forward with his case and it should therefore be dropped.

Lawyers for Joshua Tate of Nashville, Tenn., made that argument and others for dismissing the case during a hearing in front of a military judge in Washington. Tate, 21, is facing a court-martial, the military’s equivalent of a trial, in mid-March.

The head of the Naval Academy, Vice Adm. Michael Miller, last month told the same judge that he had not felt any pressure and believed he had complete freedom in making his decisions about how to proceed. He said his decision was made after a careful review and in consultation with others in the military justice system. Responding directly to the question of whether he was pressured by superiors, he answered: “I was not.”

But one of Tate’s lawyers, Jason Ehrenberg, said Monday that people above Miller had sent a message “loud and clear” that Miller needed to set an example with the case. Ehrenberg pointed to speeches and statements about sexual assault made at the Naval Academy and elsewhere by high-ranking officials including Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and President Barack Obama and argued there was “unlawful command influence” on Miller’s decision to move forward with the case. Ehrenberg suggested Miller could be influenced without realizing it.

A prosecutor, Lt. Cmdr. Phil Hamon, disagreed, saying there was no unlawful command influence or even the appearance of it. He said Miller “simply made a tough call” in moving forward with the case.

Prosecutors initially accused Tate and two other Naval Academy students of sexually assaulting a female student in 2012 at an off-campus house in Annapolis, Md., where the school is located. The woman said she didn’t remember being sexually assaulted after a night of heavy drinking but heard from others she had had sex with multiple partners at a party. The men were all football players at the academy at the time.

Tate is the only player currently facing charges in the case. Miller decided not to go forward with a court-martial for one student, Tra’ves Bush of Johnston, S.C., and in January he dismissed charges against the other, Eric Graham of Eight Mile, Ala. Bush has graduated from the academy. A spokesman for the Naval Academy confirmed Monday that Graham is in the process of resigning from the school.

The military judge overseeing Tate’s case, Col. Daniel Daugherty, suggested with his questions Monday that he isn’t inclined to dismiss the case, but he did ask lawyers about options short of dropping the charges. He asked lawyers whether they thought someone else in the military, not Miller, should decide whether the case goes to a court-martial. And he asked whether it makes sense to change the makeup of the military jury that will hear the case.

Currently, the jury will be made up of military members who are part of the Naval Academy’s faculty and staff and therefore under the vice admiral’s command. The judge asked lawyers what they thought about a group of military members from outside the Naval Academy hearing the case.

Ehrenberg, Tate’s lawyer, suggested both remedies would be appropriate because they help remove the case from the atmosphere of Annapolis.

“The winds in Annapolis are stormy, sir,” Ehrenberg told the judge.

Hamon, the prosecutor, said “certainly it would be a clean slate to have new members.” But he disagreed that someone other than Miller should be asked to decide whether the case should go to trial.

The judge did not say Monday when he would rule.

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