Naval Academy case is fuel for proponents of military justice reform

Over the past two weeks, military lawyers in a Naval Academy sexual assault case have questioned witnesses, battled over testimony and debated medical records. The woman who accused three midshipmen of sexually assaulting her spent about 30 hours on a witness stand.

But the proceeding — called an Article 32 hearing — was not a trial.

Whatever the presiding officer decides about the fate of the defendants will be subject to review by the superintendent of the Naval Academy, who could either dismiss the allegations or send charges to a court-martial that would cover many of the same legal issues.

The sexual-assault case is playing out amid a national discussion about how the military justice system handles accusations before they head to court-martial.

Critics say Article 32 hearings can force sexual assault victims to publicly relive their trauma twice, and they argue that prosecutors — not commanders — should be responsible for decisions about whether to court-martial suspects.

Unlike a civilian grand jury, which is conducted in secret with prosecutors offering evidence to a panel of jurors to evaluate, Article 32 hearings are public. The defendants have a right to be present at Article 32 hearings, and their attorneys can examine witnesses and offer evidence.

The accuser in the Naval Academy case has filed a lawsuit seeking to strip the charging decision from Superintendent Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller,, a move that comes as Congress debates a bill that would transfer that power to military prosecutors nationwide.

The attorney, Susan Burke, argues that Miller is biased because he doesn't want the academy to look bad and plays favorites with the football team. (All three accused midshipmen were football players.)

Taryn Meeks, executive director of the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, said that commanding officers may not always be partial, may have personal relationships with people involved in the cases and lack legal training necessary to make a sound decision.

Having trained prosecutors make decisions to prosecute would ensure that ugly and embarrassing cases are not "swept under the rug," Meeks said.

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