Susan Burke

Susan L. Burke is an attorney who is an advocate for victims of military sexual assault. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun / June 27, 2013)

As the hearing into alleged sexual assaults by three members of the Naval Academy football team stretched into a fourth day Friday, the focus shifted from the accuser toward her high-profile lawyer.

Defense attorneys spent an hour grilling Baltimore-based lawyer Susan Burke, a national figure in combating sexual assaults in the military. They suggested that she had pressured her client into pursuing charges against the football players to further her own cause.

"She is trying to push the complaining witness through this process," said Ronald "Chip" Harrington, a civilian attorney for Midshipman Eric Graham.

Graham and Midshipmen Tra'ves Bush and Joshua Tate are accused of engaging in sex acts with a female midshipman while she was passed out at an off-campus party in Annapolis after a night of drinking.

Vice Adm. Michael Miller, the academy superintendent, ordered the Article 32 hearing to help him decide whether to refer the three midshipmen to a court-martial, impose administrative sanctions or dismiss the charges.

Bush and Tate could face charges of aggravated sexual assault stemming from the alleged events during the April 2012 party at the Annapolis house known as the "black pineapple" or the "football house." Graham is facing a charge of abusive sexual contact. All three could be charged with making false official statements.

Bush, Tate and Graham have not testified during the hearing or commented publicly on the allegations.

The Baltimore Sun does not identify the victims of alleged sexual assaults.

The hearing, which opened this week at the Washington Navy Yard, comes at a time of rising concern over sexual assaults in the ranks.

The Pentagon estimates as many as 26,000 service members were sexually assaulted last year, up from 19,000 the year before.

Andrew Weinstein, a civilian attorney for Bush, joined Harrington in questioning Burke's motives. He asked Burke about her website, media appearances and goals for change in the military.

Burke, who moved her law practice from Washington to Baltimore this summer, represents hundreds of alleged victims of sexual assault in lawsuits against the military, and has worked with members of Congress on legislation to amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice. She appears prominently in "The Invisible War," the Academy Award-nominated 2012 documentary on military sexual assault.

"Ms. Burke is using [the accuser] to further her own larger institutional objectives," Weinstein said.

Burke acknowledged a "long-term interest" in changing how the military handles sexual assault cases. Like other critics, she opposes rules that give the commanding officer of a unit — in this case, Miller — the authority to determine whether and how assault allegations among its members are prosecuted.

Burke said she has been troubled by how her client's case has been investigated. "I'm troubled by what she's endured this week," she added.

Over the course of three days this week, the midshipman has spent more than 20 hours on the witness stand, and faces more cross-examination when the hearing resumes Saturday.

Navy Cmdr. Robert P. Monahan Jr., the investigating officer presiding over the hearing, adjourned the session Friday after the woman said she was too mentally and physically exhausted to go on.

Thursday's session was also adjourned because of her fatigue.

During testimony Friday, the midshipman appeared irritated at times at being asked similar questions repeatedly.

After she responded to a question about whether she walked to a car by saying, "It's possible I did cartwheels," Monahan admonished the midshipman to answer questions directly.

Friday's hearing revealed a few details of the crimes alleged against the three midshipmen. One of Graham's attorneys, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Angela Tang, said the accusation against her client involves the female midshipman performing oral sex on him while in a car.

The female midshipmen has testified that she has no memory of sexual acts with any of the three accused midshipmen.

She also has testified that she recalls a flash of a memory of being in the back seat of a car with Graham, with others in the front seats.

She also has testified that Tate told her that he had sex with her and that she heard of Bush boasting on Facebook about having had sex with her that night. The woman said she and Bush had a prior sexual relationship.

Once the hearing is complete, Monahan will make a recommendation to Miller whether to take the case to a court-martial or not. Miller will make the final decision.

pwood@baltsun.com