Naval Academy football players investigated in sex assault case
BALTIMORE — The Navy is investigating the alleged sexual assault last year of a female midshipman at the Naval Academy by three members of the football team, a Pentagon spokesman confirmed Friday.
The woman has told investigators she remembers little of the alleged assault, which she said occurred after she became intoxicated at an off-campus party in Annapolis, her attorney said.
Susan Burke, the Washington-based attorney, said the woman learned from friends and social media that three football players were claiming after the party that they had had sex with her while she was incapacitated.
The allegations out of the nation's premier training ground for Navy and Marine Corps officers come as the military grapples with rising reports of sexual assaults within the ranks. President Barack Obama, during his commencement address at the academy last week, said the assaults undermine the military's strength and must be stopped.
Burke said the Navy investigated the allegations last year, but only her client was disciplined, for underage drinking. Burke said the woman's alleged attackers "suffered no adverse consequences," and were permitted to continue playing football.
Army Col. Steve Warren, the Pentagon spokesman, said the investigation into the April 2012 incident is continuing. He referred further questions to the Naval Academy.
Cmdr. John Schofield, an academy spokesman, confirmed an investigation was underway but declined to provide details.
Schofield said academy leaders were "monitoring the progress of this investigation and evaluating the appropriate options for adjudication."
He added: "It is an ongoing matter and any other public comment on this potentially compromises the military justice process."
The football players have not been named.
The academy declined to make Vice Adm. Michael Miller, the academy's superintendent, or football coach Ken Niumatalolo available to comment.
News of the investigation comes amid growing scrutiny of commanders' efforts to confront the long-standing problem of sexual assaults in the military. Based on surveys, the Pentagon estimated this month that as many as 26,000 service members were sexually assaulted last year, up from 19,000 the year before.
The number of incidents reported rose to 3,374, up 6 percent from the year before.
That Pentagon report came days after the officer in charge of the Air Force sexual assault prevention and response program was charged with groping a woman in a Northern Virginia parking lot.
More than 30 instructors at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, have been investigated in a continuing probe of sexual misconduct involving more than 60 trainees; at least nine instructors have been convicted and sentenced to prison or hard labor.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has pledged more action on sexual assaults.
Obama told the academy's Class of 2013 that "those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they threaten the trust and discipline that make our military strong."
"That's why we have to be determined to stop these crimes, because they've got no place in the greatest military on Earth," he said.
The recently accused include a former academy instructor now facing a court-martial.
Marine Corps Maj. Mark A. Thompson, who taught history at the academy, has been accused of assaulting a female midshipman in his Annapolis apartment after the annual croquet match between the academy and St. John's College in 2011.
Thompson, 43, has been charged under the sections of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that deal with sexual assault, failure to obey an order or regulation, and conduct unbecoming an officer. His court-martial opened Tuesday at the Navy Yard in Washington.
Burke said her client was assaulted after she went to a party at an off-campus "football house" in Annapolis.
"She woke up at the football house the next morning with little recall of what had occurred," Burke said.
Burke said the midshipman went with a friend to report the incident to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. The woman told investigators she had been intoxicated and "could not provide much information."
What followed, Burke said, "was the all-too-typical military response: The victim was disciplined for drinking, but nothing happened to the football players."
Burke said one of the football players approached the woman and told her not to cooperate with NCIS. The woman followed that advice, Burke said, but still was "ostracized and retaliated against by the football players and the Naval Academy community."
The football players remained on the team for the fall 2012 season, Burke said.
"Indeed, as a bonding pep talk before the final football game, they even talked about the incident," Burke said. "This was done in front of the coaches, who took no action."
Burke said Miller closed the investigation without charges. She said the midshipman contacted her early this year, and the academy reopened the investigation.
She said Miller now has the findings of the 2012 investigation and a 2013 report "with additional corroborating evidence obtained through wiretaps" conducted this year.
Schofield, the academy spokesman, disputed the sequence of events given by Burke.
"There is — in fact — no final NCIS report that has been submitted to the Superintendent regarding this investigation. It is an ongoing matter," he said.
Burke, who said she plans to move her practice this summer to Baltimore, also represents a former midshipman in a federal lawsuit against Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Jeffrey L. Fowler.
That woman says she was raped on separate occasions by two different midshipmen. After she reported the assaults to an academy counselor, she alleged, the academy forced her to drop out.
The service academies have grappled for years with sexual assaults. In one high-profile case involving a football player, former quarterback Lamar S. Owens Jr. was acquitted of rape stemming from what he said was consensual sex with a female classmate in January 2006, but expelled from the academy.
In a separate incident, former teammate Kenny Ray Morrison was found guilty of indecent assault and conduct unbecoming an officer for having sex with a female midshipman without her consent in February 2006. He was sentenced to two years in prison.
The Pentagon said in January that reports of sexual assaults at the Naval Academy fell from 22 two years ago to 13 last year. But the Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, Colo., saw reports increase during the same period, resulting in an overall spike of 23 percent across the academies.
It remains unclear how accurately the number of reports reflects the number of actual assaults. Officials believe many attacks go unreported, and they conduct surveys of midshipmen and cadets to get a clearer picture.
At the Naval Academy, 15.1 percent of women and 2.6 percent of men said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact, both down slightly from a 2010 survey.
In a December memo to the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies showed that "we have a persistent problem," and he called for a "strong and immediate response."
"The young men and women enrolled at the service academies must be able to learn and develop as future leaders in an environment free from sexual assault and sexual harassment," Panetta wrote. "They must feel secure enough to report without fear of retribution, and offenders must be held appropriately accountable."
Critics say the efforts of civilian leaders and military commanders, however well-intentioned, have failed to curb sexual assaults in the military.
Lawmakers have proposed taking prosecutions out of the chain of command. Under the current system, the power to bring charges, order a court-martial and affirm or overturn a verdict may rest with a single commander.
That system has come in for heightened criticism after an Air Force general tossed out the conviction of a fighter pilot under his command who was found guilty at court-martial of sexually assaulting a civilian contractor. The general then returned the officer to service.
Burke said the latest Naval Academy case shows a need for reform.
"We continue to ask: Why should justice in military sexual assault cases be placed in the untrained and biased hands of commanders whose own career interests may be served by covering up incidents like this one?" she said.
Warren, the Pentagon spokesman, said the Department of Defense has "no higher priority than the safety and welfare of our men and women in uniform, and that includes ensuring they are free from the threat of sexual harassment and sexual assault."
"Leaders at every level in this institution will be held accountable for preventing and responding to sexual assault in their ranks and under their commands," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporters John Fritze and Kevin Rector contributed to this article.