A former Navy football player was found not guilty Thursday of sexually assaulting a fellow midshipman at an off-campus party in Annapolis two years ago in a case that has drawn national scrutiny to the elite training ground for future officers of the Navy and Marine Corps.
Allegations that Midshipman Joshua Tate and two teammates had sexual contact with the woman while she was too intoxicated to consent have helped fuel the debate over the prosecution of sexual assaults in the military. Her experience at a preliminary hearing last summer, during which she was called to testify for more than 20 hours over several days, led Congress to change the rules for such proceedings.
Advocates for further changes said the verdict Thursday showed that commanders are incapable of prosecuting sexual assaults and an attorney for Tate agreed that the system is "broken."
In another closely watched case Thursday, an Army general who had been investigated for an alleged sexual assault was reprimanded and fined for mistreating a subordinate with whom he had an adulterous affair.
In the Naval Academy case, Tate, a junior from Nashville, could have been sentenced to 30 years in a military prison if convicted of sexual assault. Marine Corps Col. Daniel Daugherty, who presided over the three-day court-martial at the Washington Navy Yard, found Tate not guilty on that charge, but referred three counts accusing the midshipman of having made false statements back to Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller, the academy superintendent.
Miller declined to pursue those charges in exchange for Tate's resignation from the academy. An academy spokesman said late Thursday that Tate was in the process of withdrawing.
Tate, who left the courtroom smiling with supporters, did not speak publicly after the verdict. An attorney for Tate said the case against his client was weak, but effectively ended his military career.
"It's a shame he had to go through this," attorney Jason Ehrenberg said outside the courtroom.
The alleged victim, now a senior at the academy, was not in the courtroom when Daugherty read the verdict.
The woman testified this week that she drank heavily before and during the April 2012 party at the so-called football house in Annapolis. She said she did not remember having sex with Tate in a car parked outside, but learned of it through academy rumors and comments on social media.
When she confronted Tate, she testified, he confirmed that they had had sex.
Prosecutors argued that she was too drunk to give consent. After the verdict, an attorney for the woman said his client was "beyond disappointed."
She "is appalled by the lack of accountability," Ryan Guilds said. "Fundamentally, this case is the result of a flawed military system."
The Baltimore Sun does not name alleged victims of sexual assault.
The allegations became public last year amid growing scrutiny of commanders' efforts to confront the long-standing problem of sexual assault within the ranks. President Barack Obama raised the subject during his graduation address at the academy last spring, saying that sexual assault has "no place in the greatest military on Earth."
The Pentagon, using confidential surveys, estimated last year that up to 26,000 service members had suffered unwanted sexual contact during the previous 12 months. But only 3,374 assaults were reported, and only 594 suspects were sent to courts-martial.
Critics say the way to improve those numbers is to take prosecutions out of the chain of command — taking the authority to order a court-martial away from military commanders, who might have conflicts of interest when weighing allegations between subordinates, and giving it to trained lawyers.
Military leaders and their allies in Congress oppose such a change. They say a commander's authority to refer troops for court-martial is an essential tool for maintaining order and discipline — and for holding officers accountable for their units.
Rep. Jackie Speier, who has championed legislation to overhaul the military justice system, said the verdict in the Naval Academy case showed that "the military cannot competently investigate and prosecute serious crimes."
"This case was botched from the beginning by an incompetent investigation overseen by a commander that never wanted to bring these charges forward," the California Democrat said. "The military justice system is broken as long as legal decisions are left up to commanders with no legal expertise and a bias to protect the assailant."