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Navy Quarterback Cleared of Raping Midshipman

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 21, 2006; A01

A former U.S. Naval Academy quarterback was acquitted last night of raping a female midshipman but was found guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer for having sex with the woman in her dorm room and disobeying an order to stay clear of her.

The verdict by a jury of five naval officers means that Midshipman Lamar S. Owens Jr., 22, could face up to two years in a military prison as well as dismissal from the Navy. He avoids the life sentence that could have come with a rape conviction.

The high-profile court-martial, involving a star football player who led Navy to victory in the Poinsettia Bowl, comes as the Annapolis academy and other military schools face increased pressure to crack down on sexual assaults. Owens's acquittal on the rape charge comes less than a month after a similar verdict for a Coast Guard Academy cadet accused of rape.

Owens's attorneys immediately objected to the jury's decision, saying that there was no credible evidence to support conviction on any of the charges and that they would ask the judge, Cmdr. John A. Maksym, to overturn the verdict today.

Owens's attorney, Reid H. Weingarten, said in a news conference that he was relieved the rape charge did not stand and was "very confident the conduct unbecoming will go." If the judge affirms the verdict, the jury will begin considering the sentence immediately.

In court testimony, the woman said Owens had entered her room while she was barely conscious after a night of heavy drinking and began forcing her to have sex, stopping only after she resisted. Owens contended that he had been invited to the room during an instant message conversation and began having consensual sex with her; he found that she had suddenly become unresponsive, after which he stopped and left.

Owens's defense team argued that the prosecution's case was "riddled with reasonable doubt," given that the woman acknowledged having several gaps in her memory of the incident and that several witnesses had testified that they had seen her drinking heavily. Prosecutors responded that she had no reason to lie in her testimony and that Owens had apologized repeatedly during a telephone conversation with the woman that was secretly taped by investigators.

The nine-day trial made public other problems the academy usually keeps private. The testimony of several witnesses, some of them granted immunity, touched on sex, binge drinking, cheating and lying -- taboos at a school that tries to instill in its students the ideals of honor, courage and commitment.

Owens's case is one of the few at Annapolis that has reached court-martial. Most sexual assault allegations are quietly resolved by the school's internal disciplinary system. Of 56 midshipmen accused of the crime since 1998, only two have been convicted.

The jury of four men and a woman delivered the decision after nearly 10 hours of deliberation in a small chamber next to the wood-paneled courtroom in the Washington Navy Yard. Under military procedure, a two-thirds majority is required to convict on each charge. The jury's votes were not revealed, and the judge ordered the jurors not to discuss the case.

Owens stood at attention as the jury's president, a lieutenant commander, read the verdict.

Owens's family members, seated behind him, grimaced and then stared stonily ahead. Weingarten's 20-year-old son, who has watched much of the trial, put his head in his hands.

Several of Owens's teammates stayed in the courthouse to wait for the verdict, then walked out when they heard what had happened.

"We'd like not to comment on that issue," said Lt. j.g. Craig Candeto, a former Navy quarterback.

Prosecutors referred comment on the case to the Naval Academy's public affairs office. An academy spokeswoman said the school would withhold official comment until after sentencing.

But the result could be overturned today by Maksym, who has been a central character in the drama and made a number of crucial rulings, including the decision to play the taped phone conversation for the jury.

Maksym often rocked in his burgundy leather chair but would lean forward to instruct the jury, a witness or one of the attorneys. His statements were peppered with legal terms, polysyllabic Latinate words such as medulla oblongata, coagulate and interregnum, and literary allusions such as one he made yesterday to prosecutors: "Christ said to Peter, 'He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.' "

Maksym did not hesitate to reprimand anyone who made mistakes in court, including Weingarten, who once forgot to rise from his seat to make an objection.

More significant, he criticized the prosecution's case on several occasions, questioning the qualifications of one of its expert witnesses and saying the defense had taken the alleged victim's testimony apart "like a Swiss watch."

The most devastating blow came during the prosecution's closing statement Wednesday, when the judge told the jury that prosecutors had misrepresented a witness's statement that the woman had said, "I have been raped." After checking the court transcript, Maksym determined that the prosecutors had made a "grave error."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company