- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 9, 2006

Three courts-martial for sexual assault and misconduct at the U.S. Naval Academy are set for the summer — including rape charges against the football team’s star quarterback — even as the school is under pressure to reduce sexual assaults.

Lamar Owens Jr., who led the Navy football team to an 8-4 record in the fall, faces court-martial today at the Washington Navy Yard on charges that he raped a fellow midshipman in her dorm room in January. Courts-martial are set for later this summer against another football player accused of indecent assault and an academy instructor accused of making crude sexual comments to a female student.

The number of cases is relatively high for the Annapolis school, which held only one court-martial for a sexual offense from 1994 to 2004, according to a Pentagon report released last year.

But the academy, along with the country’s other public military schools, has been under scrutiny since accusations of sexual assault arose at the Air Force Academy in 2003. On June 28, a Coast Guard Academy cadet was sentenced to six months in a military prison after being convicted of sex-related crimes in a court-martial, though he was acquitted of rape.

Some victims rights groups say the cases show that the Naval Academy, which was criticized in the Pentagon report for not doing enough to curb abuse, is demonstrating that it won’t tolerate sexual offenders.

“Once they realize we have zero tolerance for sexual harassment, assault or violence, I anticipate we will see the numbers go down,” said Delilah Rumburg, head of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. She co-chaired the task force that wrote the Pentagon report.

But attorneys for some of the accused say the increase in cases is driven by political pressure on the Naval Academy and its superintendent, Vice Adm. Rodney Rempt, to take action in cases that normally wouldn’t be handled through the Navy’s legal system.

“Adm. Rempt is running scared,” said Charles Gittins, attorney for Lt. Bryan Black, the instructor accused of sexual harassment. “He has been under pressure from the board and feminist organizations.”

A spokeswoman for the academy would not comment on the upcoming cases.

The academy has struggled with charges of sexual abuse and harassment since it first admitted women in 1976. Women still make up only a fraction of the midshipmen, about 17 percent of the 4,000 students. But the numbers are increasing with each class.

The academy has incorporated training on sexual-harassment and sexual-abuse prevention into training beginning with “plebe summer” — the first session with incoming students. A sexual-assault intervention program provides resources for victims and encourages reporting of abuse.

“I have consistently made clear to all our staff and midshipmen that the Navy does not tolerate sexual harassment, misconduct or sexual assault,” Adm. Rempt said last month while testifying before a House panel probing abuse at the military academies.

The Navy can handle cases using administrative methods, which could lead to the resignation of a midshipman from the academy, or through a court-martial in the service’s criminal system. Taking the latter route means prison time is among the possible punishments. The academy superintendent decides which method to use, and appoints the jury pool in a court-martial.

There have been 41 accusations of sexual assault involving midshipmen since 2001, according to academy statistics released last month. Of those, eight were referred to trial. Two were convicted, one by court-martial in the summer, the other in civilian court. Two await trial — Mr. Owens and fellow football player Kenny Ray Morrison. The other four were expelled.

The academy traditionally has chosen the administrative option, allowing midshipmen to resign, said Anita Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the Miles Foundation, which tracks cases of abuse in the military. The fact that some midshipmen are facing criminal proceedings is encouraging, she said.

Attorneys for Mr. Owens, Lt. Black and Mr. Morrison have challenged Adm. Rempt’s ability to oversee the cases, saying his decisions are swayed by politics, not evidence.

Cases such as that of Lt. Black, who is facing a special court-martial that can result in lighter penalties than a regular court-martial, usually are handled administratively, Mr. Gittins said.

Although the academy encourages reporting, there still may be a reluctance among midshipmen to report assaults. During a preliminary hearing for Mr. Owens, a friend of the reported victimsaid that the woman faced difficulty over whether to report the incident and that women who report men at the academy “get crucified” by their peers.

Mr. Owens entered the woman’s room early Jan. 29 and forced himself on her, authorities said.

Both were drunk, and the woman said during an Article 32 hearing — akin to a grand jury — that she blacked out during some of the incident. Mr. Owens’ attorney has said his client is not guilty.

But jurors likely will hear a tape of a phone call that the victim made to Mr. Owens a week later. In a soft voice, Mr. Owens says he considered killing himself after the incident and asks whether the woman reported it.

“I can never expect you to forgive me,” Mr. Owens says on the tape.


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