WASHINGTON — Attorneys for a Naval Academy midshipman accused of sexually assaulting a classmate argued Monday that the academy's superintendent was pressured to prosecute the case — one of several claims the legal team is making in an effort to have the case dismissed.
Midshipman Joshua Tate is awaiting trial on charges of aggravated sexual assault and making false statements, stemming from an alleged assault at an April 2012 off-campus party.
The case has gained national attention, and at a motions hearing in military court at the Washington Navy Yard, Tate's attorneys said academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller was influenced by military and political pressure when he made the decision to prosecute the midshipman.
Jason Ehrenberg, a civilian attorney for Tate, cited updates Miller sent to his superiors on the case, comments made by President Barack Obama at graduation in 2013 regarding sexual assault in the military, and letters from Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski to top military leaders urging more action on such cases. In one of her letters, Mikulski asked how academy superintendents are hired and fired.
Those letters, Ehrenberg said, were "inferring, if not threatening" consequences for Miller if he didn't handle the sexual assault case to her satisfaction.
Miller testified two weeks ago to defend his handling of the case, and prosecutors for the Navy said Monday that no undue pressure existed.
"Sure, outside pressure exists in this case … but that goes with the territory," said Lt. Cmdr. Phil Hamon, a Navy attorney. Miller "simply made a tough call, and that is what commanders are paid to do."
In addition to saying Miller was unduly pressured, Tate's team is asking military judge Col. Daniel Daugherty to dismiss the case because, they say, Tate was selectively prosecuted while others who drank or lied about the party had lesser punishments. They also contend that there's insufficient evidence and a lack of specificity in the charges.
Daugherty did not rule from the bench but suggested one way to deal with actual or perceived improper pressure — legally known as unlawful command influence — may be to remove the superintendent or his legal adviser from the case or pick potential jurors for the court-martial from outside of the Naval Academy.
Tate's lawyers, while still arguing to have the case thrown out, agreed.
"The winds in Annapolis are strong, sir," Ehrenberg said.
Tate and two other midshipmen were initially accused of assaulting a female classmate at the party. The alleged victim testified she drank excessively before and during the party, and had only spotty memories of the night. But she believes she may have been assaulted, in part because of rumors and social media postings after the party. The Baltimore Sun does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.
After a preliminary hearing last year, formal charges were not pursued against Trav'es Bush, who later was commissioned as an ensign in the Navy. Charges were filed against Midshipman Eric Graham, but were dropped after a judge ruled key statements he made were inadmissible because he had not been read his Miranda rights.
Graham might now become a witness in Tate's case and is scheduled to be deposed by prosecutors and defense attorneys in open court Tuesday.