Navy wants Mid gone

The Baltimore Sun

The Naval Academy is seeking to expel Lamar S. Owens Jr., a former standout quarterback who was acquitted in July of raping a female classmate, after he rejected several offers aimed at persuading him to resign.

Owens, who had volunteered to quit last summer to avoid prosecution, will appeal the recommendation by Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the academy superintendent, to the secretary of the Navy in hopes that he can graduate and be commissioned a surface warfare officer, sources close to Owens said yesterday. That would set up a battle between the alumni who backed Owens and Rempt, who has staked out an aggressive stance against sexual misconduct at the academy.

After meeting Friday with the superintendent, Owens was served Monday with the administrative charges that Rempt said warrant his dismissal, including having sex in the academy dormitory and downloading pornography onto his computer.

Unlike other former midshipmen who have been kicked out in recent years, Owens would not be forced to repay the $130,000 cost of his education, a development that sources said was a product of negotiations. But neither would he be granted a diploma or a commission.

Reid Weingarten, Owens' top defense lawyer, condemned Rempt's finding that his client was guilty of "unsatisfactory conduct." What happened in the academy dormitory room of his accuser Jan. 29, 2006, was nothing more than "a few minutes of poor judgment ... which he immediately corrected," Weingarten said yesterday in a statement.

Citing an ongoing personnel matter, the academy declined to comment on the case except to confirm that Owens had met with Rempt and that the superintendent would soon forward his recommendation to Navy Secretary Donald C. Winter for review.

Reached at home last week, the accuser's father said the family would have no comment on the outcome of the case. The Sun generally does not identify women who allege sexual assault.

The charges against Owens had the highest profile of a string of sexual offense cases that brought unwanted attention to the Annapolis military college.

Last year, a Navy oceanography instructor was charged with making crude remarks to a female midshipman, and a second football player faces indecent assault charges after a night of partying in Georgetown. His trial is scheduled for April.

The public scrutiny from the three trials led to drastic reform at the academy, including a landmark zero-tolerance alcohol policy that ordered midshipmen not to get drunk by limiting their consumption, threatening expulsion for those who didn't comply.

The first hint of evidence in Owens' case - a taped conversation between him and his alleged victim where he uttered numerous emotional apologies - seemed to bolster the accuser's account, because most reported sexual misconduct incidents at the academy boil down to a victim's word against that of her alleged assailant.

Owens offered to resign, according to sources familiar with the case. The academy declined and pressed forward with the charges.

Early on, however, questions began to emerge about the alleged victim. She had been drinking heavily that night and couldn't remember key portions of the evening. Asked in a March preliminary hearing by Owens' attorney if it was possible that she had given her consent and didn't remember, she replied: "Yes, it's possible."

In a Washington Navy Yard courtroom, Owens' defense team contrasted his relatively clean record with the behavior of the accuser and other immunized prosecution witnesses - what the lawyers dubbed "serial violations" of academy rules like binge drinking, underage drinking, prescription drug abuse and other partying that ran afoul of the rules.

After a two-week trial, a military jury acquitted Owens of rape but convicted him of conduct unbecoming an officer and disobeying a lawful order. The jury recommended no punishment.

Owens was reassigned to temporary duty at the Washington Navy Yard, where he earned scarcely more than $800 a month while awaiting a decision on whether he would be allowed to graduate and move on or be expelled for breaking academy regulations related to the case.

During the seven months in limbo, the academy made numerous offers asking for Owens' resignation, but he steadfastly refused, according to sources familiar with the case.

The academy's justification for recommending Owens' expulsion included two minor court-martial convictions stemming from his rape trial in July, the alleged existence of pornography on his computer, demerits accumulated at the academy and a poor "military aptitude" score during his final semester there, after rape charges had been brought against him, sources said.

Owens' supporters have said those administrative charges were baseless, noting that the viewing of pornography is widespread at the academy and among virtually all college students and that Owens had been given high marks for military performance before charges were brought against him.

Lawyers in this and other sexual misconduct cases have said Rempt is bowing to outside pressure to take sexual assault allegations seriously in the aftermath of a 2003 scandal that rocked the Air Force Academy, a charge the Naval Academy has steadfastly denied.

But the claim took on new life last year when alumni, who met with Rempt at a routine function in Idaho just weeks after the trial's conclusion, submitted sworn affadavits saying he had made biased statements at the meeting.

The allegations prompted Rempt to recuse himself from his role in reviewing the outcome of the court-martial, turning it over to another senior Navy official, who upheld the ruling last month.

Weingarten said in the statement that Rempt should have recused himself from the case entirely "because of the obvious appearance of bias and partiality against our client."

"We believe had he done so, Midshipman Owens would be serving effectively today as an officer in the United States Navy," the statement said. "Lamar is a mature, responsible 'leader of leaders' who should have a brilliant future in our armed forces."

Charlotte Cluverius, a former academy law professor who now represents military clients in Washington, said expulsion appeals rarely succeed.

"There is a set list of criteria that the superintendent has to present for an expulsion to be upheld," she said, noting that the secretary of the Navy generally follows academy recommendations in these cases.

"But this case has been a very high-profile case. Things could be different this time," she said.

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