WASHINGTON — The superintendent of the Naval Academy told a military judge Friday that his decision to prosecute a midshipman in a high-profile sexual assault case was not influenced by politicians, public pressure or his military supervisors.
Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller spent more than three hours on the stand in a military court at the Washington Navy Yard defending his decision to pursue charges against Midshipman Joshua Tate.
He rebutted the contention that the national spotlight on sexual assault in the military — including a pledge from President Barack Obama to root out sexual predators in the service — affected the way he has handled the case.
Tate's lawyers contend that Miller was pressured to press the case despite scant evidence and an alleged victim who has changed her story several times.
Miller, as the commanding officer of the academy, has final say on whether to prosecute criminal cases.
Tate, a resident of Nashville, Tenn., is one of three midshipmen initially accused of sexually assaulting a female classmate at an off-campus party in April 2012. Charges were never brought against one, and charges against the other were later dropped. A former member of the Navy football team, Tate is charged with aggravated sexual assault and making a false official statement. His court-martial is scheduled for March.
Jason Ehrenberg, Tate's civilian attorney, has filed pretrial motions alleging unlawful command influence and selective prosecution on Miller's part. He offered a string of news reports, letters and email messages in an attempt to show that Miller was regularly updating his superiors on the case as news coverage and political discussion of sexual assault in the military intensified in 2012 and 2013.
In testimony Friday, the superintendent acknowledged the national attention on military sexual assault — and this case in particular — but said the charges against Tate should move forward because there are "reasonable grounds" to believe that he might have committed a crime.
Miller told the judge, Marine Corps Col. Daniel J. Daugherty, that he stood by his decision to prosecute, and also stood by published comments in December that a court-martial was necessary to get a "fair illumination" of the incident and to maintain "good order and discipline" at the academy.
He said he was not pressured by statements by Obama in 2013, including comments at the academy's graduation, on the need to deal with sexual predators in the military.
Miller also said he was not influenced by letters from Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski in 2013 to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel urging military academy superintendents be held accountable for sexual assaults within the ranks.
"I am ... deeply troubled by the lackluster response from the superintendents to increasing rates of sexual assault within their academies," the Maryland Democrat wrote in her letter to Hagel.
And to Mabus, Mikulski wrote, "Cadets and midshipmen are watching how their leaders handle these crimes. If we are going to end sexual assault in the military, we need to start by ending it at the institutions that train our future leaders."
Miller said Mikulski is "certainly entitled to send a letter when she has concerns." He said his staff discussed holding a meeting with Mikulski on the issue, but it never took place.
During a preliminary hearing in August and September, the alleged victim testified that she drank excessively before and during a party at an off-campus "football house" in April 2012. She said she had only spotty memories of the night but believed she might have been sexually assaulted, in part because of rumors and social media postings among her classmates. At one point, the investigation was closed, but it was reopened after she agreed to cooperate.
The military judge who oversaw the preliminary hearing concluded that there were reasonable grounds to believe that Tate might have committed a crime, but recommended against prosecution because a conviction was unlikely.
Miller's own legal adviser and a regional Navy legal office also recommended against prosecution, but Miller decided to go ahead with the case against Tate and Midshipman Eric Graham. The case against Graham was later dropped after a judge ruled that statements made by the midshipman would not be admissible because he had not been read his Miranda rights.
During Friday's testimony, Miller appeared calm and confident, at times smiling when lawyers argued over objections. At times, the admiral's testimony was inaudible because he spoke so softly.
Attorneys will make oral arguments on the defense motions in February.