ANNAPOLIS, Md. - The case of three former U.S. Naval Academy football players accused of sexually assaulting a fellow midshipman at an off-campus toga party has renewed calls for academy leaders to face tough accountability as the military tries to curb what has become a persistent and embarrassing problem.
The Defense Department estimates thousands of sexual assaults go unreported, and some say the training ground for future military leaders is a natural starting point to tackle the problem. The Navy says it exhaustively investigated the latest case and is trying to put an end to midshipmen living and partying in off-campus homes, though two U.S. senators are among the critics calling for greater accountability for the superintendent and other leaders.
"There's no mistake that I'm not happy with the way sexual assault has been handled in the military," Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. and a member of the Naval Academy's Board of Visitors, said in a recent interview.
In a June letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, shortly after the latest case at the Naval Academy made headlines, Mikulski wrote that she was "deeply troubled by the lackluster response from the superintendents to increasing rates of sexual assault within their academies."
She has proposed creating a commission that would in part examine how well sexual assault cases are handled by superintendents at the nation's military academies, who will lead an increasing number of female and openly gay students in coming years.
Others have said high-ranking officials like superintendents have far too much personally at stake to have a say in whether sex assault cases are brought to trial.
An attorney for the accuser in the current case has sued, asking a federal judge to order that the academy's superintendent, Vice Adm. Michael Miller, recuse himself from deciding whether Midshipmen Tra'ves Bush, Josh Tate and Eric Graham will face a court-martial. Bush and Tate are charged with aggravated sexual assault, while Graham is charged with abusive sexual contact.
Attorney Susan Burke wrote in the lawsuit that the superintendent "intentionally subverted the judicial process" to punish the alleged victim with abusive badgering from three legal defense teams over long hours for days.
"The superintendent is biased and conflicted because his own personal self-interests in career advance merit and reputation have been harmed as a result of the crimes perpetrated at the football house," the lawsuit stated.
The Navy has declined to comment on the lawsuit because the case is pending.
In the broader context of the entire military, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., contends that commanders should be removed from the process of deciding whether crimes go to trial and be replaced by seasoned trial lawyers with experience in such cases. Military leaders have opposed the idea, saying that removing the decision from their purview would undercut the ability of officers to maintain good order and discipline.
Retired Col. Morris Davis, who led an investigation into a highly-publicized sexual assault case in 2003 at the U.S. Air Force Academy, said the case now before the Naval Academy reminds him of the calls for change he heard 10 years ago. Davis said he believes the military will need to change its culture from within to make sexual assault as abhorrent as other crimes students consider deeply dishonorable.
"We've got to make it clear that it's one team, one fight, and you take care of your teammates," Davis said. "You don't prey on them, and there has to be a stigma attached."
In the current case, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service began investigating within days of an April 2012 "Toga and Yoga" party - during which men wore togas and women wore yoga pants - at an off-campus party house dubbed "the Black Pineapple" and used by football players.
The alleged victim initially did not want to pursue charges and testified last month that she has no memory of being assaulted and heard secondhand that she had sex with several people at the party.
"After an exhaustive investigation, conducted primarily without the assistance of the alleged victim, NCIS concluded their investigation in November 2012," said Cmdr. John Schofield, a Naval Academy spokesman. "Based on the facts available at the time, there was insufficient evidence to support legal action."
But the case was reopened in January, when the alleged victim began cooperating with Navy investigators and eventually took part in wiretapping of possible suspects.
In the midst of the investigation, President Barack Obama emphasized the importance of stamping out sexual assault during his speech to this year's graduating class on May 24. Burke went public days later, disclosing the investigation and what her client knew. On June 19, the superintendent forwarded charges against the three midshipmen to an Article 32 hearing to help determine whether they will face a court-martial.
Burke, an outspoken lawyer who has represented more than 200 sexual assault victims, has accused the academy of trying to sweep the case under the rug to protect its reputation.
At the Article 32 hearing that ended in early September, a Navy investigator who worked on the case described it as one of the largest investigations he could recall. Special Agent Jesus Torres testified that more than 100 interviews were conducted, with 20 to 30 midshipmen interviewed at least twice. He also testified that the case generated more than 1,500 pages of documents.
In the aftermath of the case, the academy has taken added steps to stop sexual assault. Capt. William Byrne, the commandant whose role is similar to that of a dean of students at a civilian college, sent a letter to parents of the 4,400 midshipmen and to sponsors in the Annapolis area who open their homes to midshipmen.
"As you are likely aware through media reports and past communication from this office, over the past couple years several incidents of serious misconduct have taken place at off-campus residences leased by Midshipmen or leased by parents or sponsors for the benefit of Midshipmen," Byrne wrote in the August letter. "I need your help to put a stop to this practice."
Byrne also told reporters last month about plans to make training to prevent sexual assault a part of the regular academic work day. In 2007, after a separate case of sexual assault involving Navy football players, the academy added a more structured approach to raising awareness about sexual misconduct, with 30 hours of training over a midshipman's four years. In that case, quarterback Lamar Owens was acquitted of raping a fellow midshipman but convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer. Another former football player, Kenny Ray Morrison, was convicted of sexually assaulting a fellow midshipman.
An investigative officer is currently reviewing the evidence presented at the Article 32 hearing. Cmdr. Robert Monahan will forward his recommendations on whether the case should proceed to a court-martial to the academy's superintendent, who will make the final decision.