Five are chosen to decide fate of midshipman

Potential jurors questioned about views on alcohol use, sexual abuse in rape case against Owens

July 11, 2006|By BRADLEY OLSON | BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- In a prelude to the court-martial of Navy's star quarterback last season, who is accused of raping a female classmate in January, prosecutors and defense attorneys questioned potential jurors about their impartiality, experience with alcohol use and sexual abuse.

The military judge, defense attorneys and Navy lawyers eliminated nine of 14 "members" -potential jurors in military courts - because of their perceptions about Lamar Owens' guilt, past relationships with him or the alleged victim, and prior experience with sexual assault.

That left five on the panel, the minimum required at a general court-martial. The jury includes one woman and, among the four men, one Hispanic. The five members range in rank from lieutenant to lieutenant commander, and four of the five graduated from the Naval Academy, all between 1994 and 2001.

Under military law, two-thirds of the jurors - four of five in this case - would have to agree for Owens to be convicted. He is accused of rape, indecent acts, indecent assault, failure to obey a lawful order and conduct unbecoming an officer. If convicted, he could face life in prison, though such a sentence is rare in military rape cases, according to experts.

Opening statements in the case were to begin at 9 a.m. today at the Washington Navy Yard.

Much of the questioning yesterday focused on potential jurors' perceptions about alcohol use and whether any felt pressure from the academy leadership to convict Owens. With various witnesses, Reid Weingarten, one of Owens' civilian attorneys, indicated that he would present "a lot of evidence" about the alcohol use of the alleged victim and at one point said she "binge drinks."

Both sides asked about the potential jurors' experience with alcohol use and whether that would cause them to feel sympathetic to or suspicious of the alleged victim.

In a March pretrial hearing to determine whether there was enough evidence for a court-martial, the woman testified that on the night of the alleged rape, she had as many as eight drinks, including four shots, in a short time and was drunk when she returned to the dorm. Owens was also drunk that night, according to testimony at the hearing.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys also questioned panel members about the term blackout and how they defined it, hinting that expert witnesses would be called to assert different definitions of the term. Defense attorneys seemed to represent blackouts as a failure to remember one's actions after heavy drinking.

How blackout is defined could be important in the case because the woman also testified in March that she blacked out several times before and during the alleged rape.

Navy prosecutors also asked potential jurors whether they could convict someone of rape even if the alleged victim did not verbally resist, and both sides asked panelists whether they knew anyone who had been raped, had been falsely accused, knew any of the witnesses or senior Naval Academy leaders, or had decided on the question of Owens' guilt based on media accounts.

Two high-ranking academy officials were eliminated based on their rank at the academy and perceptions about the case.

Asked whether the case brings disrepute on the academy, Cmdr. Joseph Leonard said, "I don't think so. It shows the system does not tolerate any kind of misconduct." Asked to elaborate, he said, "Something was found to raise it to this level. That's how it got here."

As soon as the attorney's finished questioning him, Cmdr. John Maksym, the Navy judge in the case, excused Leonard, saying he didn't believe he would evaluate the case impartially.

Much of the day was punctuated by the flamboyance of Maksym, who made multiple biblical references, asked potential jurors to speak up by telling them to be "Roman rather than Greek" and joked often about the oddly designed courtroom and its age.

Owens was unemotional and sat quietly during the hearing, with several family members sitting behind him.

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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