At U.S. Naval Academy rape hearing, midshipmen describe ‘toga and yoga party’

Written by Max Ehrenfreund

Testimony continued Monday in the case of a midshipman who has accused three former Naval Academy football players of raping her at a party last year. The defendants, Tra’ves Bush, Joshua Tate and Eric Graham, have denied wrongdoing. The hearing at the Navy Yard is analogous to a civilian grand jury. After the hearing ends, the presiding officer will make a recommendation on whether the case should go to a court-martial.

On Monday, several of the woman’s friends testified about how aware she was of what was happening the night of the party:

Many of the midshipmen at the “toga and yoga party,” which featured a moon bounce, appeared to know one another and were drinking heavily, according to testimony. Some of the midshipmen who testified Monday said the accuser was drunk and slurred her words, while others said she was just slightly intoxicated and did not have slurred speech.

In an illustration of the complicated web of relationships at the party and in the courtroom, Ashlyn Soellner, a midshipman who was a witness for the defense, testified that her relationship with one of the defendants had gone from doing homework together to a sexual nature. Another midshipman, Ryan Williams, said he had had a previous relationship with the accuser.

He testified that the accuser told him, “I’m not proud of what I did,” referring to the night of the party.

Another witness — Christa Kamon, a midshipman who is a friend of the accuser — testified that the accuser called her the day after the party and asked, “Where am I, and what happened?”

But one of the accuser’s best friends — midshipman Kenyon Williams — testified that the day after the party, the accuser appeared aware of what had happened. “Last night was crazy,” Williams recounted the accuser saying. He said the woman also told him, “What I did last night, I did it and I wanted to do it.” Dana Hedgpeth

Earlier, defense attorneys kept the accuser on the stand for 20 hours, asking her detailed questions about her medical history, clothing and behavior. Columnist Petula Dvorak writes that the cross-examination reveals problems with how the military handles cases of sexual assault:

They asked her whether she was wearing a bra or panties that night. They asked her to describe how wide she opens her mouth during oral sex. They asked her if she “felt like a ho” the next morning.

What? An attorney said “ho” in a hearing? . . .

“She learned from friends and social media that three football players were claiming to have had sexual intercourse with her while she was incapacitated,” her attorney, Susan Burke, said in a statement when I wrote about the case in June.

It was her fellow classmates, who were horrified by the online bragging of the three football players, who reported the case.

Reluctantly, the woman told academy officials what she could remember. What did the academy do? They punished the 21-year-old for drinking.

She and her attorney began to wonder if the academy would ever investigate the players.

Now, the defense attorneys are trying to make her regret that the case ever got this far.

The questions have been invasive, irrelevant and demeaning. Petula Dvorak

Burke, the woman’s personal attorney, is not a prosecutor in the case and is not allowed to participate in the hearing, but she has become one of the foremost critics of the military’s treatment of sexual assault:

Burke has sued top Defense Department officials on behalf of dozens of servicewomen and men who were assaulted and then retaliated against, and she’s accustomed to speaking out for change in news conferences and on national television. . . .

Burke has just in the past two years taken on an all-too-booming pro-bono practice representing those who’ve reported being sexually assaulted while serving in the U.S. military. “Once I showed the least interest” in such cases, she said, “I was inundated.’’

Still, she says as she sits down for an interview after another long day in a hearing room at the Washington Navy Yard, “I’ve never seen anything like this” multi-day, few-holds-barred cross examination of an accuser at the preliminary proceeding that will decide whether the three defendants will be court-martialed.

A former white-shoe defender of white-collar health-care fraud cases, Burke, 51, has morphed from what she calls a “regular corporate defense attorney” for clients including IBM and Microsoft into a nearly full-time taker of cases with a social conscience.

She had always done what she calls “human rights-y stuff” on the side, says the Georgetown and Catholic University law graduate who grew up on military bases. It was a post-9/11 Washington Post article by Bob Woodward quoting an American official who warned that the “gloves are off’’ in response to terrorism that got to her, she recalls, and she became so concerned about the possibility of government-sanctioned torture that she became a lead attorney representing detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. She won settlements from Blackwater — now Academi — for 68 Iraqi civilians, and became the lead attorney representing soldiers suing Halliburton and KBR for disposing toxic waste in open-air burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. Melinda Henneberger

Burke joins Katz, Marshall & Banks, a whisteblowing firm, this week.

 
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