The proceedings will become a closely watched case study of how the U.S. military polices sexual violence within its ranks.
Within weeks of the release of a Pentagon study that said an estimated 26,000 U.S. service personnel reported “unwanted sexual contact” last year, a panoply of high-ranking generals appeared June 4 before a Senate panel to testify about the military’s handling of sexual assaults. Although many were openly critical of the military’s record, they successfully beat back an effort, spearheaded by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), to take away their authority over such cases.
The three Naval Academy athletes, including one whose graduation in May was held up because he was under investigation, are accused of sexually assaulting a female midshipman during an April 2012 party at an off-campus house used by academy football players.
The Naval Academy’s superintendent, Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller, made the decision to move forward with an Article 32 hearing based on the findings of Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigators, academy spokesman John Schofield said.
“This case is still in the pre-
trial phase, so any further comment on this ongoing investigation would be inappropriate,” he said in a written statement.
The purpose of an Article 32 hearing is to help the Naval Academy superintendent decide whether the case merits a general court-martial, which is the military equivalent of a criminal trial. The hearing is conducted by an officer chosen from outside the superintendent’s chain of command, who reviews the evidence and examines witnesses. The defense and prosecution also can cross-examine witnesses. The hearing officer then comes up with findings and passes recommendations to the superintendent.
Under military law, the maximum penalty for rape is life in prison without the possibility of parole and a dishonorable discharge, said Lisa Windsor, a former judge advocate general who is in private practice in Washington. The maximum penalty for making false statements is five years in prison and a dishonorable discharge.
Even if the midshipmen are acquitted of rape charges and convicted on lesser offenses, they could still be expelled, denied commission or forced to pay back some of the cost of their education.
The probe began more than a year ago, prompting criticism from the accuser’s attorney, Susan Burke, who said Navy officials were dragging their feet.
Burke said Wednesday that although she was “cautiously optimistic” about the case’s outcome, the Naval Academy’s treatment of the victim and the football players raised “troubling questions” and “reflects why rape victims are fearful and skeptical of the military justice system.”