A Naval Academy midshipman accused of sexually assaulting a classmate at an off-campus party asked a judge Friday to decide his fate instead of a jury in the trial that's being watched at the Annapolis institution and across the country as a bellwether of how the military handles such cases.
Midshipman Joshua Tate is charged with aggravated sexual assault and making false statements to investigators in a court-martial beginning Monday at the Washington Navy Yard.
Tate was to face a jury made up of Navy and Marine Corps officers stationed in the Washington region but had a "change of heart," according to his civilian attorney, Jason Ehrenberg. At Friday's jury selection, Ehrenberg said Tate wanted a judge to hear the case because he felt a judge would have a better understanding of legal nuances than jurors.
The case against Tate dates back to a party in April 2012 at an Anne Arundel County house dubbed the "Black Pineapple" by midshipmen. The house had been rented in violation of academy regulations.
The alleged victim has testified she spent the hours before the party drinking and has only spotty memories of the night. She passed out on a couch and caught a ride to the academy in the morning, but later heard through rumors and social media that she may have had sexual encounters she didn't remember.
The case comes amid a rise in reports of sexual assault in the military and a drumbeat of high-profile cases, including that of an Army brigadier general accused of sexually assaulting a female captain and an Army prosecutor facing allegations that he made advances toward a female Army lawyer.
"Almost every day, it seems like some other 'you could not make it up' scandal is breaking," said Brian Purchia, spokesman for advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, which is working to reduce sexual assault in the military. "It reads like an article from The Onion, but it's the truth."
Purchia said the Naval Academy case — with the elements of an off-campus party house, sex and heavy drinking — comes up "time and time again" as an example of why action is needed.
Greg Jacob, a former Marine who is policy director for the Service Women's Action Network, said sexual assault needs to be stamped out at academies if there's any hope of changing the military culture. He noted the majority of top military leaders hail from the academies.
"It's a really pervasive issue," he said. "It's happening in all the branches of the services. It's happening in the ranks. It's happening at all the academies."
In December, President Barack Obama ordered a one-year review of the military's efforts to prevent sexual assaults.
At the Naval Academy's commissioning ceremony last May, Obama told midshipmen, "Those who commit a sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they threaten the trust and discipline that make our military strong."
In the Naval Academy case, the investigation progressed in fits and starts, including a period when the alleged victim didn't cooperate with investigators, prompting the Navy to close the case in November 2012.
"I was scared," she said during a hearing last August. "I didn't want anyone else to get in trouble. Seeing what people went through before, I think I just didn't have the courage. I didn't want my mom to find out."
In January 2013, she decided to cooperate, and the case was reopened. She also gave interviews to national media outlets, including TV networks and The New York Times. The Baltimore Sun does not name victims of alleged sexual assaults.
In June 2013, Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Michael Miller ordered a preliminary hearing involving three midshipmen: Tate, Tra'ves Bush and Eric Graham, all football players who had attended the party.
Miller later chose not to prosecute Bush. He was punished administratively for making false statements, then allowed to graduate. He's now a Navy ensign.
The case against Graham was dropped after pretrial rulings when a judge determined some of his statements couldn't be used in court. Graham is withdrawing from the academy and is scheduled to be a witness against Tate.
The case against Tate will center around what happened in a car outside the party house. The alleged victim has said she remembers only being in the car with Tate. Graham, who also was in the car with the victim at one point, has said she had been drinking, but was talking and moving normally.
Tate's civilian attorney, Ehrenberg, said this week he's confident his client will be exonerated. He said prosecutors can't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a sexual assault occurred.