WASHINGTON -- A former U.S. Naval Academy football player was acquitted Thursday of sexually assaulting a classmate at a party, bringing to conclusion a case that began almost two years ago and drew wide attention at a time when the military is under scrutiny for how it handles sexual assault cases.
The judge, Col. Daniel Daugherty, acquitted Joshua Tate of Nashville, Tenn., of one count of aggravated sexual assault. During the trial, prosecutors argued that the woman Tate was accused of assaulting was too drunk to consent to sexual activity. But Tate's attorneys disagreed, arguing the woman was in control of her body and making decisions for herself.
The judge said Thursday in announcing his decision that the facts of the case "present difficult and complex questions." And he said that the vast majority of testimony at the three-day trial, testimony by midshipmen who attended the party where the alleged assault occurred, was shaded by alcohol consumption and the passing of time. But the judge concluded prosecutors had not proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard required for conviction.
Tate's case was being closely watched case as the military tries to improve the way it handles sexual assault cases. A Pentagon report released last year estimated that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted in the prior year and that thousands of victims are unwilling to come forward out of fear their careers might be derailed.
Jason Ehrenberg, one of Tate's attorneys, said after the ruling that the military's focus on improving its sexual assault response had impacted the case, and he criticized what he said was a clearly political environment that had pushed his client's case along. He said it never should have reached trial.
Still, he said his client's acquittal showed "the system worked." He said his client's reaction to the decision was "one of great relief." And he called Tate, now 22 and in his third year at the Academy, a "good young man."
An attorney for the woman at the center of the case, meanwhile, said in a telephone interview after the judge's verdict that "deeply disappointed doesn't adequately describe" his client's reaction to the case's outcome.
Ryan Guilds said his client was "appalled by the lack of accountability" and said the case's outcome was a result of a "flawed military system" for reporting and investigating sexual assault. Another one of the woman's attorneys, Susan L. Burke, said in a statement that the woman "hopes legitimate reforms of the military justice system will occur because of her case and those of other survivors."
The Associated Press generally doesn't name alleged victims of sexual assault.
More than a dozen witnesses testified at Tate's trial. That included the alleged victim, who testified for more than five hours over two days. She said she drank heavily on the night of the party in 2012 and didn't remember being sexually assaulted. But she said she soon saw rumors on social media that a woman had had sex with multiple partners at the party, and she believed the rumors were about her. She said she confronted Tate, who confirmed they'd had sex.
Prosecutors initially accused not only Tate but also two other students, all of them football players at the time, of sexually assaulting the woman during the party at an off-campus house in Annapolis, Md., where the school is located. Tate was the only student ultimately brought to court-martial, the military's equivalent of a trial.
In addition to the sexual assault charge, Tate also faced charges of lying to investigators. The judge did not decide those Thursday, however, returning the decision on what to do to the head of the Naval Academy. Ehrenberg, Tate's attorney, said after the decision that he believed his client would be offered a deal: voluntarily resign from the Academy and the charges will be dropped. Ehrenberg said Tate's career in the Navy is over, but what he will do next is uncertain. He'd still like to be a football player but also wants to teach.
It's been up to the head of The Naval Academy, Vice Admiral Michael H. Miller, to decide how to proceed in the case. He previously decided not to go forward with courts-martial for the other two students, Tra'ves Bush of Johnston, S.C., and Eric Graham of Eight Mile, Ala. The military held an Article 32 hearing, which resembles a preliminary hearing in civilian court, in August and September of 2013. Following that hearing Miller decided in October not to pursue charges against Bush.
Charges against Graham were dropped in January. Prosecutors had recommended that move after a military judge said statements Graham made during an investigation would not be admissible during a military trial. The Academy confirmed in February that Graham was in the process of resigning from the school.
Just hours before the verdict in Tate's case, a separate court-martial unfolding in Fort Bragg, N.C. also ended in favor of the defense.
Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair was reprimanded and docked four months' pay but avoided prison time for carrying on a three-year affair with a captain who later claimed she had been sexually assaulted.