By Raymond McCaffrey and Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 17, 2006
Five months after he was cleared of a rape charge, the U.S. Naval Academy's former star quarterback is shuffling papers at the Washington Navy Yard, awaiting word on whether he will be allowed to serve as an officer -- or kicked out of the academy on lesser offenses and forced to pay back $136,000 for his education there.
The case of midshipman Lamar S. Owens Jr. remains front and center in the Naval Academy community, spurring an ugly battle between the superintendent, Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, and academy graduates who accuse Rempt of bias.
In letters written to Navy officials, heated comments posted on message boards and affidavits submitted to Owens's defense attorneys, alumni allege that the superintendent remains convinced that Owens, 23, raped a female midshipmen, despite a jury's decision to the contrary. Their campaign has broadened to question Rempt's stewardship of the academy at a time when the school is under increased scrutiny from Congress.
"The Owens case, I think, stands at the heart of what many and most alumni hold dear: honor and integrity," said Pete Savage, a 1963 graduate involved in the campaign.
On Friday, the academy said Rempt has removed himself from any further consideration of Owens's legal case. Typically, he would have to affirm convictions for lesser offenses, which in this case are conduct unbecoming an officer and violating a military protective order.
In a written statement, an academy spokesman said Rempt had "voluntarily relinquished his role" after Owens's defense team raised the allegations, which the statement called "untrue," about "an appearance of a lack of neutrality."
But the statement did not say whether Rempt will remove himself from the administrative decision on Owens's future in the Navy, a move that Owens's attorney, Reid H. Weingarten, is pursuing.
The alumni argue that Rempt's overzealousness in prosecuting high-profile sexual assault cases is part of his effort to advance an agenda designed to appease Congress and women's groups demanding a crackdown on sexual assault and harassment at military academies.
They say that in unjustly targeting a prominent black midshipman who was a leader not only on the gridiron but also in church, Rempt has unintentionally set back another social cause: the advancement of African Americans in the Navy.
The case has also exposed a fault line of opposition from alumni who believe academy standards have been lowered under Rempt's watch. They point not only to high-profile cases involving drinking and sexual indiscretions but also to a general lack of decorum displayed on a much-viewed Internet video of midshipmen marching through the streets of Annapolis on the way to a recent Navy football game, appearing -- in the words of one alumnus who commented online -- like "undisciplined louts in uniform."
"People are saying, 'Why have an academy anymore?' " Savage said.
In the eye of the storm is Rempt, who came to the academy with a reputation as a leader in advancing the role of women in the military. Rempt has since won praise for targeting what he identified as three major related problems at the academy: alcohol abuse, sexual misconduct and honor violations.
Last week, Rempt briefed the academy's Board of Visitors, an oversight committee that includes members of Congress, on the progress of his initiatives, which include a policy started in August that established high blood-alcohol concentration as grounds for expulsion.
About 2 percent of midshipmen given random breath tests this school year were found to have been drinking alcohol, according to academy officials. Meanwhile, surveys showed approval ratings were steadily improving from female, as well as male, midshipmen on such issues as whether the academy provides "a positive environment for women."
Critics say Rempt's changes also have generated unwanted publicity for his zealous handling of high-profile cases. This week, a former Navy football player accused of drugging and raping two female midshipmen is back in court after key evidence was called into question.
William M. Ferris, an attorney for former linebacker Kenny Ray Morrison, 24, said prosecutors informed him that follow-up tests showed no traces of the date rape drug GHB in either of the victims' hair. Calling the case "a travesty," Ferris said the Navy has persisted in pressing "charges that apparently cannot be supported by the evidence."
The Owens case erupted in February after a 20-year-old female midshipman reported that the quarterback had entered her dorm room and raped her. In her testimony during Owens's July court-martial, the woman said that she had been drinking heavily that night and could recall few details but that she awoke to find Owens forcibly having sex with her.
Owens testified that the woman had sent him an instant message inviting him to her room and that they began having consensual sex but that he stopped when she became unresponsive.
A jury of five naval officers dismissed the rape charge, and although it convicted Owens on the two lesser charges, decided not to dismiss Owens from the Navy or reprimand him.
Without a rape conviction, supporters say, Owens was guilty of breaking academy rules and should have been allowed to continue his military career after facing -- at worst -- discipline for what, in light of the jury's decision, could only be inferred as consensual sex in a dorm room.
"He should be treated as a midshipman who committed an error of bad judgment for two minutes," Weingarten said. "Juxtapose the Navy's treatment of Lamar with the treatment of the women in this case, all of who were serial violators of academy rules."
The accuser and other witnesses in the case, who admitted to underage drinking, were given immunity in exchange for their testimony.
Before the case went to trial, Rempt was faulted by a Navy judge for e-mails sent to the school community that the judge said insinuated Owens's guilt in the alleged rape.
After the conviction, word spread among alumni that the superintendent was not willing to let the case go. Peter Optekar, a former Navy football player, recounted a conversation he and three other alumni had with Rempt at an Idaho barbecue last summer.
"Admiral, now that Lamar is found not guilty of rape, are you going to graduate him, commission him and let him get on to his life?" Optekar recalled asking.
"I don't think so," Rempt responded, and he threw his hands up in the air, Optekar recounted in an interview and in a letter to Rempt. He said Rempt then told of the emotional trauma suffered by the female midshipman and other details of the case.
"What that told me was that he was so emotionally tied into this thing that he was not fair and impartial," Optekar said. "We were stunned."
Optekar sent a follow-up letter to Rempt asking him to recuse himself from the case, saying he felt that Rempt's approach "made the playing field so uneven it will damage our ability to attract qualified black midshipmen in the future."
An academy spokesman said Rempt was not available for an interview.
Criticism of Rempt cuts across generations of graduates and extends to those who have not aligned themselves with Owens. Curt Hartman, a 1987 alumnus, said that although he had not formed an opinion about the case, he did not think it was fair for Owens to be "stuck with Admiral Rempt wallowing in indecision."
"My problem with Rempt is he's not making a decision, and he's setting a poor example for midshipmen. I think there's a systemic problem with Rempt . . . being so preoccupied with placating this special interest group or that special interest group."
Under the military justice system, any conviction in a court-martial must be reviewed and affirmed by the command that brought the charges.
The academy received Owens's trial record for review Oct. 11. In response to the charges of bias, Rempt decided to recuse himself from the case, Cmdr. Ed Austin, an academy spokesman, said in a statement.
"To ensure this case moves forward, and to avoid any appearance of bias, the record of trial will be forwarded to another senior naval officer for independent review and action," Austin said.
Despite all that has happened, Owens wants to serve in the Navy. "After a great deal of thought, he wants to see it through," Weingarten said. "He's profoundly disappointed with what happened, but he doesn't hold the whole Navy responsible."
Owens attended this year's Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia. "The support and love for him was overwhelming," Weingarten said. Then he went back to his clerical job at the Navy Yard. "It's a dramatic underutilization of his talent," Weingarten said.