The U.S. Naval Academy is pursuing a new tack in its crackdown on sexual harassment and assault: prosecuting a case with a rarely used form of court-martial that might make it easier to win convictions but metes out lesser punishments for offenders.
The implications are important for the Annapolis military college, which has struggled to reform a culture that a Pentagon task force has deemed "hostile" to women. Since 2001, only one midshipman out of 37 accused of sexual assault has been convicted. Others faced administrative punishments, including expulsion, but left the academy with clean records.
Trying some cases in a "special court-martial," a military trial typically used for misdemeanors that speeds up the judicial process, could change that. Although offenders wouldn't see jail time, they would have a federal conviction and a good chance of having to register as a sex offender.
In one of the first tests of the new strategy, senior and former football player Kenny Ray Morrison will face a special court-martial in July. Without releasing his name, the academy announced last week that Morrison and star quarterback Lamar S. Owens will be court-martialed in connection with separate incidents.
Owens faces a general court-martial - the most serious form of military trial - because of allegations that he assaulted a female midshipman in her dorm room in January.
Morrison, a Kingwood, Texas, native whose identity was confirmed by his attorney, is charged with indecent assault, indecent acts and conduct unbecoming an officer after a Feb. 4 incident at a Washington hotel.
Charging documents say that he attempted to "take advantage" of a drunken female midshipman by "pressuring her, presuming consent, to engage in multiple acts of sexual intercourse in the presence of another midshipman." He also allegedly engaged in multiple sex acts in front of another midshipman and exposed himself to several Mids.
"We are going to trial, and we expect that he will be exonerated of all charges," said William Ferris, Morrison's lawyer. "I expect to win this case. I've told the prosecutor that. I've told the Naval Academy that."
In the aftermath of a sexual assault scandal in 2003, the Naval Academy overhauled its sexual assault prevention and response programs, but like the other service academies, it has struggled to win convictions on rape cases.
Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the school's superintendent, has taken a hard line against sexual harassment, assault and underage drinking, which academy officials have said is a factor in most rape cases. An academy crew team member was dismissed in March for a consensual encounter that was against academy rules, and Lt. Bryan Black, an academy oceanography professor, also faces a special court-martial on allegations that he used sexually explicit language in front of midshipmen.
An academy spokeswoman declined to say why Rempt chose a special court-martial in Morrison's case, noting in a written statement that he made the decision "after carefully considering all the available evidence."
As commanding officer of the academy, Rempt has the authority to convene judicial proceedings against those under his command and to select who will sit on the jury, although defense attorneys may vet the jury pool.
Defense lawyers say that using a special court-martial for sexual misconduct allegations is unfair.
Ferris, one of the most prominent civilian defense lawyers for Naval Academy cases and an academy graduate, said he has seen only one other special court-martial for sexual misconduct since 1978, when he began practicing.
He said Rempt's decision reflects a lack of evidence. The victim alleged she was raped, Ferris said, but the academy chose not to charge Morrison with that crime.
"We think it's a bit peculiar that the Naval Academy has chosen to go forward with this trial, given the fact that they obviously don't believe part of what this victim has said, because she alleged rape and they didn't want to charge rape."
Charles Gittins, a civilian lawyer who has represented Black and an enlisted Marine accused of sexual misconduct in special court-martials, said the academy uses them to prosecute weak cases and to avoid negative publicity.
Charlotte Cluverius, a former law instructor and officer assigned to the academy who now works in a civilian practice in Washington, said the academy might be using the special court-martial to get public credit for taking cases to trial.
"This is particularly so, given the recent attention the academies have received for their handling of sexual offenses," she said.
While a special court-martial has certain advantages for prosecutors - including the lack of a preliminary hearing and an easier road to conviction - the punishments are much less severe.