U.S. Naval Academy superintendent faces questions over decision to try midshipman

Correction: A previous version of this article identified Daniel Daugherty as a Navy commander. He is a Marine colonel.

U.S. Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller is scheduled to take the stand Friday in a courtroom at the Washington Navy Yard to defend his controversial decision to try a former Navy football player on sexual assault charges, against the recommendation of legal advisers.

Midshipman Joshua Tate of Nashville is facing court-martial for allegedly sexually assaulting a female midshipman at an April 2012 off-campus party. The judge presiding over the trial, Marine Col. Daniel Daugherty, ordered Miller to appear so the judge could determine whether public comments by civilian and military leaders influenced Miller’s decision to try Tate. If Daugherty finds there was unlawful command influence, he could limit the potential punishment or dismiss the charges, among other options.

Miller’s testimony is expected to be his most extensive public comments to date about the high-profile case that last fall helped focus lawmakers’ attention on the military’s handling of sexual assault cases. President Obama recently signed into law several measures that partially curtail commanders’ authority over such cases, such as requiring a civilian review when commanders refuse to prosecute.

Tate’s case will proceed under the old law because it was referred to trial before the new one went into effect. But his attorneys will try to persuade Daugherty on Friday that the political pressure that led to those reforms played an outsize role in Miller’s decision to put Tate on trial.

They have cited public comments made by lawmakers such as Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.),who wrote Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus in June complaining of “a lack of strong leadership” to address the problem of sexual assault at the service academies and demanding to know “what are the criteria for retaining a Superintendent?”

Mikulski sits on the Naval Academy’s Board of Visitors, which is similar to a university board of trustees.

In such a highly politicized atmosphere, Jason Ehrenberg, an attorney for Tate, said, the decision to try Tate was a way for Miller “to show the world, his commanders, Congress that, ‘I take this issue seriously.’ ”

An academy spokesman said he could not comment on pending litigation.

Academy officials have defended Miller’s decision in the past, saying they were informed by the findings and recommendations of the investigating officer who heard extensive evidence at a preliminary hearing, known as an Article 32, and Navy lawyers.

Under military law, the academy superintendent wields far-ranging authority in sexual assault cases, including the ability to bring charges, send a case to trial and choose the pool of people the jury is chosen from, legal experts said.

Miller initially charged three former Navy football players with sexually assaulting the same female classmate at the April 2012 party. (The Washington Post does not generally identify alleged victims of sexual assault.) The accuser testified at the Article 32 proceeding that she was drinking heavily that night and remembers little of what happened.

After the Article 32, Miller dropped charges against Tra’ves Bush of Johnston, S.C., and chose to send the cases of Tate and midshipman Eric Graham of Eight Mile, Ala., to trial. Earlier this month, Miller dropped charges against Graham at the urging of prosecutors after Daugherty refused to let them use statements Graham made to investigators about sexual contact with the alleged victim because Graham was not read his Miranda rights.

Timeline

Past coverage: Naval Academy rape allegations

Tate’s trial is scheduled to begin in March.

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