Jury selection is scheduled to begin Friday in the trial of a former U.S. Naval Academy football player accused of sexually assaulting a female classmate at an off-campus party nearly two years ago.
Defense attorneys for midshipman Joshua Tate, of Nashville, are expected to carefully screen each potential juror for any signs they have been influenced by comments made by President Obama and top Navy officials about the need for the military to do more to stamp out sexual assault within its ranks.
Tate’s lawyers have made an issue of what the military calls “unlawful command influence” in recent months as they sought to have the case dismissed. They argued that political considerations drove U.S. Naval Academy Superintendent Michael Miller to put Tate on trial, counter to recommendations by his legal adviser and another military judge who examined extensive evidence in the case.
Under military law, Miller as superintendent has broad authority over disciplinary and criminal matters involving midshipmen, including the power to charge, to send a case to court-martial and to choose the pool from which jurors are selected.
The judge presiding over Tate’s court-martial, Marine Col. Daniel Daugherty, was not convinced that Miller was influenced by the comments of lawmakers and top military brass. But the judge said potential jurors might be, and he ordered that the jury be chosen from outside Miller’s command.
The Tate trial is the latest in a string of high-profile cases that, for some, has exposed the conflicts of interest that can arise when military commanders have broad authority over sexual assault cases. Since the alleged victim in the Tate case went public with her allegations a year ago, lawmakers in Congress have passed reforms to address such concerns, including ending commanders’ ability to overturn jury verdicts and requiring a civilian review when commanders choose not to prosecute sexual assault cases.
A controversial proposal by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to remove sexual assault cases from the military chain of command failed to pass in the Senate earlier this month. A separate package of reforms of the military’s handling of sexual assault cases, proposed by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), was passed by the Senate on Monday.
As political pressure on the armed forces to address sexual assault has increased, however, military defense attorneys have had increasing success convincing judges that political considerations are getting in the way of impartial justice. The trial of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, who is accused of forcing a female subordinate to perform oral sex on him, came to an abrupt halt this week, after the presiding judge said the case may have been tainted by political pressure. Sinclair is now negotiating a plea agreement with prosecutors.
The Tate case centers on what happened inside a car parked outside an off-campus party in April 2012 and whether the alleged victim was too intoxicated to consent to sexual activity. The alleged victim has previously testified that she was drinking heavily that night and remembers little of what happened. She said she learned in days after the party from friends and social media that she had had sex with multiple men that night. The Washington Post does not generally identify alleged victims of sexual assault.
Tate was one of three former Navy football players Miller initially charged in the case. But charges against two of them, Eric Graham of Eight Mile, Ala., and Tra’ves Bush of Johnston, S.C., were later dropped. Graham gave a deposition earlier this year under a grant of immunity in which he said the accuser appeared capable of speaking, moving on her own and making decisions. Bush is not expected to testify, defense attorneys said.
Opening arguments are scheduled to start Monday at the Washington Navy Yard.