Charges dismissed against Navy commander accused of attempted rape
By PAULINE REPARD | The San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: June 1, 2018
SAN DIEGO — A San Diego judge on Friday dismissed the case against a Navy commander who was facing a third trial on charges that he tried to rape a junior officer in 2016. He still could face prosecution by the Navy.
Two previous trials for Cmdr. John Michael Neuhart II, 41, ended in mistrials, with jurors deadlocked but leaning toward conviction on the most serious charges.
Superior Court Judge Laura Halgren last month approved a third trial on two charges of attempted rape and assault with intent to commit rape. She dismissed other charges involving burglary and resisting arrest.
A subordinate Navy officer, who had served with Neuhart in Guam, accused him of trying to rape her in her home in the Valencia Park neighborhood of San Diego. Neuhart set his cellphone to record part of the encounter, which included the woman repeatedly shouting, “No! Stop!” and ordering him out of the house.
In a hearing Friday to confirm the new trial date, set for February, Deputy District Attorney Pat Espinoza surprised the judge, Neuhart and his attorney Kerry Armstrong, by saying prosecutors were dismissing the remaining charges.
“It was a nice surprise,” Armstrong said in an interview after court. “I’m ecstatic. Mr. Neuhart is a very happy man today.”
Armstrong said he had expected to discuss in court whether he would continue as Neuhart’s lawyer in a third trial, but now the commander may need to pick an attorney familiar with military law.
A military spokesman confirmed that the Navy has accepted jurisdiction in the case and will review it to decide whether to prosecute.
Neuhart has remained in the Navy but was relieved of his command of a helicopter squadron in Guam. He has been assigned to administrative duties in San Diego during his court proceedings.
“He wants to stay in the Navy but he realizes that’s not likely to happen,” Armstrong said.
Over the course of the two trials, jurors saw security camera footage at a downtown San Diego hotel showing Neuhart and the junior officer drinking together and occasionally hugging and kissing. Neuhart was in town for a conference and met up with the woman and some others from the Guam squadron.
Neuhart and the woman got a paid ride to her house. At one point she ordered him out, so he set his cellphone toward the back door of the house to record himself knocking and telling her to let him in.
Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Tag told jurors Neuhart tore the woman’s jeans off, used his command presence to intimidate her into letting him back inside, then roughed her up and tried to rape her. A neighbor who heard the commotion announced that he had a gun and was calling police. Neuhart ran from the house, but fell and broke his leg and was arrested.
Armstrong argued that the two had flirted with each other in Guam and again at the hotel, and both were too drunk to make good decisions. He said Neuhart was confused by the woman’s mixed signals about inviting him home.
Neuhart testified in his own defense in the first trial, calling that night a “bizzaro-world” where he believed the woman’s “No” meant “Yes” and that his video would protect him from a rape allegation.
“It was one of the weirdest videotapes of cases I’ve ever had in my life,” Armstrong said Friday. “And I’ve had some strange ones.”
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