DENVER - An Air Force Academy sophomore will be the first to face a court-martial on rape charges since a sexual assault scandal broke at the academy earlier this year, officials announced Wednesday.
Douglas Meester, 20, is charged with rape, sodomy, indecent assault and providing alcohol to minors. If convicted at a military trial, he could face life in prison and dismissal from the Air Force.
The decision to court-martial Meester was made by Brig. Gen. John Weida, who became cadet commandant earlier this year in a management shakeup that stemmed from the scandal.
Weida rejected the recommendation of the investigating officer who presided over Meester's Article 32 hearing in May; that officer had recommended administrative punishment instead. No date has been set for the court-martial.
Defense attorney Capt. Kathleen Reder said Meester has several options, including asking the secretary of the Air Force to approve his resignation instead of a court-martial.
"Certainly administrative dispositions are something you want to look at," she said.
Reder said she may ask the judge to move the court-martial away from the academy near Colorado Springs and she suggested Meester is being treated differently than he would be had there been no scandal.
Weida did not return a call seeking comment. But Reder said commanding officers rarely go against investigating officers' recommendations in such cases.
During the May hearing, an 18-year-old freshman cadet from Pennsylvania testified that on Oct. 18, she drank at least six shots of tequila with Meester and two other cadets in his dorm room. She said she passed out and awoke as Meester raped her, and that she drifted in and out of consciousness.
Defense attorneys argued the woman never told Meester to stop and did not resist him. Both cadets were found to have blood-alcohol levels almost double the legal limit for driving.
The fact that Meester will face court-martial rather than administrative punishment suggests the academy is on the right track in addressing its problems, said Kate Summers of the nonprofit Miles Foundation, which helps victims of violence in the military.
The Air Force, Defense Department and an independent task force have been investigating of dozens of alleged sexual assaults at the academy since reports surfaced in February that women who reported being sexually assaulted were punished or ignored. The academy's top commanders have since been replaced.
"I would say it is a first step in providing accountability," Summers said. "This will hopefully precipitate system accountability for leadership which may not have responded in a timely fashion to charges previously."
She said she was concerned a plea bargain could reduce the charges to something relatively mild such as conduct unbecoming. She also said her group still is concerned with the academy's treatment of alleged victims.
A spokesman for Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., who called for an investigation after his office received complaints from dozens of female cadets, also said the decision was a promising sign.
"From the beginning, Sen. Allard's been concerned that there was no process, at times, being followed on cases such as this," spokesman Dick Wadhams said. "That's what needs to happen, the judicial process needs to be executed regardless of the outcome."
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