WASHINGTON -- President Obama's demands for swift justice against military sex abusers could sway jurors in the lurid case of a Marine major charged with sexual assault against a female midshipman at the Naval Academy after a boozy strip poker party, a defense lawyer warned Tuesday.
The drumbeat of condemnations of sexual assaults in the ranks by Obama, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and bipartisan Congressional leadership had the potential for prejudicing the general court martial of Marine Maj. Mark A. Thompson, said Marine Maj. Joseph Grimm, Thompson's chief defense counsel.
Thompson, who was a history instructor at the Naval Academy at the time of the alleged assaults, has been charged with two counts of aggravated sexual assault, two counts of fraternization, and three counts of conduct unbecoming an officer.
The charges stemmed from binge drinking by a group that included Thompson at a croquet match between the Academy and St. John's College, a liberal arts school in Annapolis, on April 30, 2011.
A female midshipman, who allegedly had been having an affair with Thompson, brought along a second female midshipman to Thompson's apartment after the match. They continued drinking and played strip poker, according to the charge sheet, after which Thompson allegedly had sex with both midshipmen.
The second midshipman later told the Naval Criminal Investigative Service she had been raped.
"I'm kind of worried," Grimm said repeatedly in questioning potential jurors as jury selection began in Thompson's trial at the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard. "I'm worried that Major Thompson can't get a fair trial."
Grimm noted that Obama stressed the need to combat sexual assaults at the Naval Academy itself in his commencement address to the graduating class last Friday.
"I wonder if that's going to affect the ability of the jury in this case to be fair and impartial," Grimm said.
Marine Lt. Col. Charles Hale, who was presiding in the courtroom as the military judge, asked the entire jury pool: "Is there anything about that speech (by Obama) that would affect your ability to be a fair and impartial juror?"
All replied in the negative.
The case against Thompson was getting underway amid a flurry of legislative proposals in Congress to reform the Uniform Code of Military Justice to deal with growing incidents of sexual assault and harassment in the military. A recent Defense Department survey said that sexual assault incidents in the ranks increased in 2012 to 26,000 from 19,000 in 2011.
The most recent Defense Department "Annual Report on Sexual Assault and Violence at the Military Academies" issued last December also showed increases in sexual assaults at all three military academies.
Compared to 2011, the Air Force Academy in Colorado showed the largest increase in sexual assaults from 33 to 52 in 2012. Sexual assaults at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., increased from 11 to 15, and the numbers were up at West Point from 10 to 13.
Following Obama's commencement address at the Naval Academy last Friday, Defense Secretary Hagel told the graduating class at West Point on Saturday that they must join in the drive to "stamp out the scourge of sexual assault." Air Force Secretary Michael Donley was expected to stress the same theme in his commencement address at the Air Force Academy on Wednesday.
Navy Cmdr. Aaron Rugh, the trial counsel in the case, shrugged off Grimm's suggestions of command influence and asked few questions individually of the jury pool of 15 officers, all of the rank of O-4 and above.
Rugh did draw from all of the potential jurors' agreement that they could render a guilty verdict in a sexual assault case even if the accuser "did not fit your picture of a victim of sexual assault."
All of the potential jurors --11 Navy officers, including two women, and four Marines -- said they had some knowledge of the charges against Thompson and the condemnations of sexual abuse by the chain of command, but insisted they could be impartial.
The jurors also agreed with Rugh that they would not necessarily discount the accusations of the accuser "because she did not report the sexual assault immediately."
One Marine major in the jury pool said he knew Thompson on a professional basis and also knew one of his accusers. The major stressed that he could still give the defendant a fair hearing while acknowledging "it is difficult. It has pressured me, absolutely."
"I'm just a tadpole in a sea of frogs," a Navy commander in the jury pool said. The commander had been asked if his verdict could be affected by the recent media attention to the growing problem of sexual assaults in the military, and the condemnations from the high command.
Under questioning from Grimm, a female Navy lieutenant commander in the jury pool agreed that false accusations are sometimes leveled in sexual assault cases.
"The stereotype is morning-after regrets," the lieutenant commander said.
In making his point against possible command influence, defense counsel Grimm cited Vice Adm. Joseph Miller, the Naval Academy's Superintendent who referred the charges to a general court martial. Grimm asked the potential jurors if they suspected that Miller "wants a certain outcome in this case?"
The jurors all replied in the negative, but a Navy lieutenant commander in the jury pool said he agreed with the high command's theme that growing incidents of sexual assault "adds to the general perception that there's something wrong with the military."