Naval Academy chief denies there was political pressure to try sexual-assault case

January 24, 2014

The U.S. Naval Academy superintendent appeared before a judge Friday to rebut accusations that his decision to try a former Navy football player for sexual assault was the result of intense political pressure to show that the military was doing more to address sexual violence within its ranks.

Vice Adm. Michael Miller took the stand inside a Washington Navy Yard courtroom under orders from Col. Daniel Daugherty, the military judge who is presiding over the court-martial of midshipman Joshua Tate of Nashville. Tate is charged with sexually assaulting a female classmate during an April 2012 party at an off-campus house rented by football players. Tate’s attorneys are seeking to get the case dismissed.

“The pursuit of this case does set a tone,” Miller testified, but he added that it was not the overriding factor behind his decision.

The high-profile case has focused public scrutiny on Miller, a soft-spoken, decorated former aircraft carrier commander who stressed ethics as a priority when he became superintendent in 2010. His appointment, by President Obama, followed the ouster of Vice Adm. Jeffrey Fowler over an unauthorized slush fund. Fowler was not implicated in the misconduct, but the scandal left an ethical cloud over the school. Current and former colleagues described Miller, a former chief of legislative affairs for the Navy, as polished, politically astute and a solid manager.

However, since the alleged victim went public with her claims last spring, along with accusations that Miller tried to bury them, the superintendent has faced a wave of criticism and even lawsuits over the tortured path of what Daugherty referred to Friday as “the football house cases.”

The investigation began soon after the party and ended in fall 2012, after the woman refused to cooperate with investigators, according to testimony at a preliminary hearing last summer. She began cooperating in January 2013, and the investigation resumed.

The accuser later testified that she had been drinking heavily that night and doesn’t remember much of what happened. (The Washington Post does not generally identify alleged victims of sexual assault.) She said it was only after the party that she learned from other midshipmen and postings on social media sites that she allegedly had sex with multiple men that night.

Just before the case made headlines, Obama publicly said that any service members convicted of sexual assault should be dishonorably discharged, and lawmakers in Congress were demanding changes to how the military handles sexual-assault claims.

In June, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) sent a letter to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, asking what criteria is used to determine whether service academy superintendents can keep their jobs. Mikulski serves on the academy’s Board of Visitors and the Senate Appropriations Committee.

In that hothouse atmosphere, Tate’s attorneys argued, Miller charged Tate and two other former Navy football players — Tra’ves Bush and Eric Graham — with sexually assaulting the female midshipman at the party.

Miller said Friday that he was aware of Obama’s comments and Mikulski’s letter but that they were not factors in his decision to try Tate and Bush.

Tate’s attorneys tried to show through e-mail that Miller’s superiors closely followed the case before and after an extensive preliminary hearing, known as an Article 32, that began in late August.

After that hearing, the military judge who presided over it and Miller’s own in-house counsel recommended to Miller that the case not go forward. Miller dropped charges against Bush but chose to try Tate and Graham. He said Friday that he was aware of Obama’s comments and Mikulski’s letter but that they were not factors in his decision.

Earlier this month, Miller dismissed charges against Graham at the urging of prosecutors. They made the recommendation after Daugherty ruled that he would suppress statements Graham made to investigators about his sexual contact with the accuser the night of the party because he was not read his Miranda rights.

Toward the end of Friday’s hearing, Daugherty asked Miller how he viewed Obama’s comments on the problem of sexual assault in the military. Miller said he took them as an opinion, not an order.

Miller said that although the Article 32 judge and his legal adviser recommended against going ahead with a trial because of problems with the accuser’s credibility, both men agreed that there were “reasonable grounds” that an offense had occurred. And it was his job, he said, “to ensure if there are questions remaining, that it be referred” to court-martial.

Miller’s account was supported by his in-house legal adviser, Capt. Robert O’Neill, who testified Friday that he believed Miller chose to go forward because Miller felt he “did not have all the answers.”

If Daugherty finds there was unlawful command influence, he can limit the possible punishments Tate may face or dismiss the case, among other options. The court-martial will resume Feb. 10.

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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