- Associated Press - Friday, January 24, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - The head of the U.S. Naval Academy rejected suggestions Friday that political pressure influenced him in pursuing sexual assault charges against a football player at the school.

Vice Adm. Michael Miller, the school’s superintendent, dismissed the suggestions of a lawyer for the student while testifying for more than three hours in a military courtroom in Washington. His appearance was part of a hearing ahead of a scheduled trial for the student, Joshua Tate of Nashville, Tenn.

It was Miller’s decision to move forward with charges against Tate, and the midshipman’s lawyers contend the officer was influenced by a heightened focus on preventing and responding to sexual assault in the military. Tate’s lawyers want a military judge to dismiss the case based on “unlawful command influence.” The judge did not rule on that Friday.

Miller, a 39-year veteran of the Navy who has headed the school since 2010, said his decision to move forward with the charges against Tate 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.” He later said he believed he had complete freedom in making his decisions.

Miller acknowledged being aware of a focus by the military on sexual assault prevention and response and said he followed statements made by his superiors on the topic. But he rejected the idea that he pushed forward with the case to set a tone or send a message.

A military judge overseeing the case, Col. Daniel Daugherty, used a Navy analogy to ask Miller whether going forward with the case was a warning to other students about the seriousness of sexual assault charges, asking whether it was a shot across the bow.

“There was no requirement for a shot across the bow,” Miller said.

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.

On Friday, under questioning by Tate’s lawyer Jason Ehrenberg, Miller acknowledged being aware of a number of high-profile comments about sexual assault in 2013 as the case was ongoing, but he said they didn’t affect his decisions. Miller said he knew that in May, President Barack Obama said those who commit sexual assault in the military should be “prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period.” Obama also spoke at the academy’s graduation that same month and mentioned the topic of sexual assault.

Miller said he was also aware that in June, Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a member of his academy’s oversight board, sent a letter to the Secretary of the Navy saying she was troubled by inconsistent policies at the service academies for preventing and responding to sexual assaults. She also asked asking about the criteria used to select and retain a superintendent.

Later that month, Miller decided to move ahead with the military equivalent of a preliminary hearing or grand jury investigation in the case. Miller said he reviewed a 171-page report that resulted from that hearing, reading it at least three times before he decided that two of the three students should face court-martial proceedings, the military’s equivalent of a trial.

Miller said he decided not to move forward with charges against one student because the report concluded “reasonable grounds” did not exist to believe he had committed a sexual assault crime. But he did decide to move forward with charges against the two other students because the report’s conclusion was that there were “reasonable grounds” to believe both men had committed sexual assault crimes. Even so, the report ultimately recommended that Miller not move forward with charges against the two men, Tate and Eric Graham of Eight Mile, Ala., because of credibility problems with the woman’s testimony. Miller went against that recommendation.

Miller has since dropped charges against Graham at prosecutors’ recommendation after a military judge ruled certain of his statements during an investigation would not be admissible at trial. Tate is the only one who currently faces charges in the case. He is set to face a court-martial in mid-March. He is charged with aggravated sexual assault and making false statements.


Follow Jessica Gresko on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jessicagresko

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