By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 22, 2006; B01
The U.S. Naval Academy quarterback acquitted of a rape charge will face no punishment for having sex with a fellow midshipman in her dorm room or violating an order to steer clear of the woman, a jury decided yesterday.
After a high-profile, 10-day court-martial, the jury of five naval officers rejected prosecutors' arguments that Midshipman Lamar S. Owens Jr. should be dismissed from the Navy for misconduct, a step that would have required him to repay the $136,000 cost of his four-year education.
The jury also declined to reprimand Owens for his actions Jan. 29 despite finding him guilty Thursday of conduct unbecoming an officer and of violating a military protective order.
Owens, 22, still could face administrative discipline -- and a possible discharge -- for breaking rules prohibiting sexual contact on campus and fraternization between members of the same company.
"The Academy will review his situation to determine the best course of action," a spokeswoman wrote in response to an e-mail.
After the jury's president pronounced the words "no punishment," Owens, standing at attention, silently looked up at the ceiling of the wood-paneled courtroom with tear-filled eyes. Family members and friends sitting behind him exhaled with relief and held one another's hands. When the judge closed the court a few moments later, they began hugging one another and Owens finally cracked a smile in relief.
"I had tears in my eyes because this young man needed and received justice today," Owens's attorney, Reid H. Weingarten, said at a brief news conference outside the courtroom in the Washington Navy Yard after the hearing. Owens and his father declined to comment; Weingarten said that Owens "feels vindicated, as he should."
The outcome was a turnaround for Owens, who went from leading the Navy football team in its Poinsettia Bowl victory to facing a maximum life sentence on the charge of raping a 20-year-old female midshipman. Despite a secretly taped phone conversation in which Owens repeatedly apologized to the woman, the jury decided there was enough reasonable doubt in her account -- she had been drinking that night and could not recall parts of what had happened -- to acquit Owens on the most serious charge.
That decision reinforced some advocates' concern that it is more difficult to convict someone of rape under the military code of justice than it is in the civilian world because the definition of rape is narrower and because the accusers are afforded fewer protections against attacks on their character.
"It's unfortunate and regrettable that justice is not being provided to those who are being victimized within the military community," said Anita Sanchez, spokeswoman for the Miles Foundation, an organization that supports victims of violence in the military.
Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the academy's superintendent, said in a statement that "the allegations and referral to court martial are sad events -- the alleged victim, the accused, their families and friends, and the Brigade are all affected by these actions. Preventing and deterring sexual harassment, misconduct and assault is a critically important issue that the Academy continually emphasizes."
The academy, along with the nation's other military schools, has come under criticism repeatedly for its handling of sexual assault charges. Most cases in Annapolis have been resolved through the academy's internal discipline system and haven't resulted in jail time.
For the remaining charges, Owens faced a maximum penalty of a year and a half in prison, but the prosecution did not ask for jail time, arguing instead for his dismissal from the Navy in dishonor.
The debate in the courtroom centered on whether the jury should forgive a young, aspiring officer who had made a mistake or whether they should throw him out of the Navy.
Cmdr. John A. Maksym, the judge, took on the issue at the beginning of yesterday's hearing when he overruled a motion by the defense to throw out the jury's decision for lack of evidence.
"Naval officers, Midshipman Owens, are special people," Maksym said. "We are held to a higher standard."
The jurors, allowed to ask Owens questions during the hearing, inquired into what he had learned from the experience.
"The first thing I think I've learned is that you always have to be on your guard," Owens replied after a long pause. "Every decision you make can be an important decision. . . . Once you make that decision, you have to live with that decision. You can't take it back."
The prosecution argued that he should have to live with the consequences of what he did and that he had violated orders and a sacred trust.
"Orders are there for a reason, and members cannot brush them aside when they deem it appropriate," Lt. Kathy Helmann, one of the prosecutors, said in her final statement. "Midshipman Owens was a representative of the United States Naval Academy. . . . He was given a special position of trust and leadership -- a position he violated."
Weingarten summoned several witnesses, many of them from the Navy football team, who argued that Owens would make a good naval officer. Weingarten said Owens had already suffered enough and had learned a lesson.
"He has to live with a very public allegation that he raped a woman," Weingarten said. "This is a heavy burden to bear."
Jury members would not comment on the decision, which took four hours to reach.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.