WASHINGTON — A military judge on Thursday found a former Navy football player not guilty of sexually assaulting a female classmate in a high-profile case that reverberated far beyond the U.S. Naval Academy’s Annapolis, Md. campus.
Marine Col. Daniel Daugherty issued his ruling on the fate of Midshipman Joshua Tate to a packed courtroom at the Washington Navy Yard.
Tate, a 22-old senior from Nashville, Tenn., showed no emotion as the verdict was read, while a supporter seated behind him cried. The judge referred lesser charges of lying to investigators back to the academy to handle internally. Academy spokesman Cmdr. John Schofield said Thursday that the remaining charges were being dropped in exchange for Tate’s agreement “to accept the most serious form of punishment a midshipman can receive through the conduct system – a dismissal from the Naval Academy.”
His accuser, also a 22-year-old senior, has become a pariah on campus, but remains on track to be commissioned as a Navy officer this spring. (The Washington Post generally does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.)
The woman was not in the courtroom for the judge’s ruling, but was described by her lawyers as deeply disappointed. “She was appalled by the lack of accountability, but hopes that her coming forward will result in meaningful reforms of the military justice system,” Ryan Guilds said.
The case, which initially involved three former Navy football players before charges against two were dropped, has fueled debate about the way the military addresses sexual violence in its ranks and whether its legal system is equipped to deal with such cases.
Eugene Fidell, an expert in military law and a lecturer at Yale Law School, called the process “a case in point for why the system has to be changed.”
But former military prosecutor Greg Rinckey drew the opposite conclusion: “The process worked itself out. And the accuser can’t say she didn’t get her day in court.”
The verdict came the same day that Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair was sentenced in another closely followed sexual misconduct case. Sinclair admitted that he had an affair with a junior officer who’d accused him of sexually assaulting her, and improper relationships with two other women. A judge reprimanded Sinclair and fined him $20,000, but did not order prison time.
Congressional lawmakers have been considering changes to the way the military handles such cases in the future. A set of reforms was passed late last year, including changes to the Article 32 preliminary hearing, often likened to a grand jury, that several lawmakers said was crafted in response to the experience of the alleged victim in the Naval Academy case. At the Article 32 hearing, the accuser testified for more than 20 hours, much of it under cross-examination by three teams of lawyers for the defendants.
But the case may be setting back efforts to encourage victims to come forward. The figures the Pentagon released in January for the 2012-13 school year showed at the military service academies, the number of “unrestricted” reports of sexual assault, which trigger an investigation, fell by 30 percent, compared with the prior academic year. The number of restricted reports, which allow the victim to seek treatment but do not trigger a probe, increased by 7 percent during the same time period.
The experience of the accuser in the Naval Academy case probably contributed to the decrease in unrestricted reports, said Delilah Rumburg, chief executive of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and co-author of a study on sexual harassment and sexual assault at the service academies for the Pentagon.
“It sends a message: ‘All these people are not going to believe me,’ “ she said.
The backlash against the verdict Thursday was swift. Within minutes, Susan Burke, an attorney for the accuser, issued a written statement, saying the young woman was “twice victimized: first by her attacker and then by the failed investigation and prosecution of this case.”
But defense attorneys repeated their contention Thursday that Burke was using the woman to advance a political agenda, regardless of the merits of the case.
“The system is broken in many different directions,” said Tate’s lawyer, Jason Ehrenberg. And although he said he was glad that the case had prompted an expansion of victims’ rights, he criticized the means by which it had been achieved. “Don’t use my client to advocate for a cause when you don’t know the evidence or my client,” he said.
The case centered on what happened between Tate and the woman in a car parked outside an off-campus party in 2012, and whether the woman was too drunk to consent to sex.
The accuser testified that she drank heavily and remembers little of that night. She said she learned from friends and through social media that she had had sex with multiple men. The defense argued that even though the woman did not remember what happened, she was in control of her faculties at the time.
As he read the verdict, Daugherty said the case raised two questions: How drunk is too drunk? And how does one know someone is too drunk to engage in sexual activity?
He said the investigation was hobbled by the woman’s initial reluctance to cooperate, and that it failed to provide enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she was too incapacitated to consent to sex.
The verdict ends a case that exposed a culture of binge drinking and casual sex at the Navy’s premier officer training ground, much to the dismay of many alumni.
The accuser initially did not want to report the incident but was forced to after another student threatened to do so. She then refused to cooperate for nine months and tried to get the defendants to lie to investigators to stop the case.
She eventually changed her mind, prosecutors said, and went public with her allegations in May, saying the academy superintendent was trying to bury the case.
The next month, the academy’s superintendent, Vice Adm. Michael Miller, charged the midshipmen: Tate; Eric Graham of Eight Mile, Ala.; and Tra’ves Bush of Johnston, S.C.
After the Article 32 hearing, Miller dropped the charges against Bush. But he ignored the recommendations of a military judge and his in-house counsel and ordered Tate and Graham to face a court-martial. (Charges against Graham were dropped later.) Lawsuits filed by the woman and the defendants accused Miller of being biased and sought his removal from the case.
The judge’s decision to declare Tate not guilty was no surprise to many of those following the case.
Fidell, the legal expert, called the outcome “inevitable.” The process shouldn’t have been so tortured, he said.
“In the end, it worked. But it cost everyone an arm and a leg, including the young woman,” he said. “I think this is an exercise we really didn’t have to endure.”