WASHINGTON - Defense attorneys on Friday accused an outspoken lawyer of using a Naval Academy sexual assault case to further her own crusade against how the military handles the problem.
Attorney Susan Burke has been counseling the midshipman who says she was sexually assaulted at an alcohol-fueled off-campus party by three football players. Burke testified that she believed the academy should have done more to investigate the allegations against the players. The military hearing will determine whether the players will face a court-martial.
Ronald Herrington, who is representing one of the accused, suggested Burke already has considered her next step after what he described as a meritless case falls apart.
"There is no merit to the allegations against anyone in this room," Herrington said.
Burke vehemently denied Herrington's suggestion. Under questioning by Andrew Weinstein, another defense attorney, Burke declined advising her client what to say in media interviews in recent months.
"She doesn't need advice," Burke said.
Burke, who noted she had represented more than 200 victims of sexual assault, said she believed the current military process for dealing with such cases was "abysmal."
"I strongly believe reform is needed," Burke said.
The exchange came after the third day of tough questioning in open court for the 21-year-old midshipman who has made the accusations.
Defense attorney Lt. Cmdr. Angela Tang spent hours questioning the woman's spotty recollections of the April 2012 off-campus toga party where she said she was assaulted. Tang also zeroed in on inconsistencies in what the senior told Navy investigators last year and how she is recalling the party now during the hearing.
The woman has testified repeatedly over three days that she had been drinking before and during the party in Annapolis, Md., and has no memory of having sex with any of the three accused.
She said she only learned of what happened after hearing gossip that she had slept with multiple partners at the house where football players gathered. That prompted her to ask one of the accused, Midshipman Josh Tate, 21, whether they had sex that night. She testified that he told her that they had. He also told her she had a sexual encounter with another one of the accused, Midshipman Eric Graham.
Tang, who is representing the 21-year-old Graham, noted that the woman testified she had consensual sex the morning after the party in the house with another football player. Tang then asked graphic questions about how oral sex is performed.
"This is an act that cannot be performed while someone is passed out," Tang said. She argued her client could not have had oral sex performed without the woman's consent.
Midshipman Tra'ves Bush, 22, also has been charged in the case.
The Associated Press generally does not name alleged victims of sexual assault.
The woman has been testifying at a hearing to determine whether the men will face a court-martial.
The woman says she initially did not want to cooperate with investigators because she did not know what happened the night of the party. But she changed her mind months later out of concern some could be wrongly accused.
At first, she testified, she held back details from investigators.
"I was trying to not give them information," she said.
The woman also says she would be happy if it is determined she was not assaulted.
The hearing at the Washington Navy Yard has dragged, largely due to repeated questioning by lawyers from three defense teams about details the woman says she has little, if any, memory. The hearing wrapped up for Friday but was scheduled to continue into the Labor Day holiday weekend.
After the hearing, investigating officer Cmdr. Robert Monahan will refer recommendations about whether the case should proceed to a court-martial. The academy's superintendent will make that decision after reviewing the report.
The case has drawn attention as the White House, Congress and the Pentagon have been focusing on the issue of sexual assault after a strong of cases in the military this year.
President Barack Obama highlighted the importance of the issue at the Naval Academy's graduation ceremony in May.