Correction: An earlier edition of this story incorrectly stated that Marine Corps Maj. Mark A. Thompson is charged with aggravated sexual assault. Thompson was acquitted of that charge in late May; he was found guilty of lesser charges including committing an indecent act and conduct unbecoming an officer. This version has been corrected.
Several U.S. Naval Academy football players will soon face charges in connection with the alleged rape of a female midshipman at an off-campus party more than a year ago, officials at the elite service academy in Annapolis said Monday.
The rape allegations, along with accusations that Navy investigators and academy brass had dragged their feet, exploded into public view just as Congress was debating changes to the way the military handles sexual assault cases.
The names of the accused midshipmen were not released Monday, nor were the specific charges. They will be included in a detailed charging document still being completed, academy spokesman John Schofield said.
The investigation, led by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, resulted from an incident at an off-campus “football house” in Annapolis in April 2012. The woman’s attorney, Susan Burke, said the woman got drunk, passed out and woke up remembering little from the party. “She learned from friends and social media that three football players were claiming to have had sexual intercourse with her while she was incapacitated,” Burke said in a statement issued last month.
The accuser is a third-year midshipman. The Washington Post generally does not publish the names of sexual assault victims.
Burke has taken on similar cases and has urged Congress to change the law so that military prosecutors, instead of commanders who lack legal training, have the power to decide whether sexual assault cases should go to trial. The Senate Armed Services Committee held hearings in recent weeks on that proposal and related bills, but the effort to curtail the authority of commanding officers failed.
In the Naval Academy case, it was up to the superintendent, Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller, to decide whether to follow the recommendation of military prosecutors. Miller did so, meaning charges will be filed and a preliminary hearing known as an Article 32 will be scheduled.
Miller, who has been at the helm of the school for three years, has followed such recommendations in the past without exception, Schofield said.
The hearing will launch a process similar to a civilian grand jury investigation to determine whether a general court-martial is warranted.
The length of the NCIS’s investigation — more than a year — drew criticism from Burke, the accuser’s attorney, who had accused Miller of foot-dragging. But Monday, Burke said, “We are pleased at moving forward after this long delay.”
The case has drawn national scrutiny because it has come amid a long string of similar scandals in various branches of the military, including the arrest last month of an Air Force sexual assault prevention officer on charges of sexual battery for allegedly groping a woman in a Crystal City parking lot.
A recent Pentagon survey estimated that 26,000 service members experienced “unwanted sexual contact” last year, although only 3,374 reports of sexual assault were recorded. One recent case, involving a former Naval Academy history instructor, went to court-martial last month. Marine Corps Maj. Mark A. Thompson, 43, was charged with aggravated sexual assault amid allegations that he had sex last year with students while playing drinking games and strip poker. He was acquitted last month of that charge but found guilty of lesser charges including committing an indecent act and conduct unbecoming an officer.
Just days before news broke of the Naval Academy case, President Obama addressed sexual assaults in the military while speaking to the academy’s graduating class.
The Naval Academy case is likely to boil down to the definition of consent, legal experts said. Prosecutors may have a difficult time making their case because the alleged incident took place before certain changes in military law took effect in June 2012, said Ernesto Carlos Gapasin Jr, a private lawyer in Ozark, Mo., who handles military sexual assault cases.
Under the previous standard, which is likely to apply in this case, a defendant could prevail by showing he reasonably mistook the victim’s behavior for consent, Gapasin said. Under the definition imposed after June 2012, that same argument is not enough for acquittal.