Troubling look into academy culture

July 14, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

WASHINGTON — Washington-- --With most in the Navy courtroom wearing their summer whites -- short-sleeved shirts and chalky, chunky shoes -- the atmosphere seemed more clinical, almost dental really, than judicial.

But as it turns out, the court-martial of star Naval Academy quarterback Lamar S. Owens Jr., now under way at the Washington Navy Yard, is as messy as any civilian rape trial.

As the judge, Cmdr. John Maksym, characterized the case during one of his blunt declarations from the bench yesterday, "This is straight-out, consent-no consent, he said-she said."

From reading news accounts, I had my take on this case, admittedly more reaction than analysis. It just seemed like an eminently stupid and preventable incident: Why, oh why, has the don't-drink-and-drive message been so much more effectively pounded into people than the don't-drink-and-leave-yourself-vulnerable message?

Spending a day at the trial doesn't give me expert standing on the matter, but I did leave the courtroom with a little more insight and a lot more sadness. It's easy to judge from afar, but there is something heartbreaking about seeing the young midshipmen in their bright whites and neat hair and what should have been promising futures mired instead in a such a sordid affair.

The case, at its heart, is probably not much different from what you'd find in any number of criminal courts today -- the accuser, also a midshipman, says Owens forced himself on her after a night of drinking; his attorneys say they had consensual sex.

What's different is how this is being hashed out: The prosecutors, the judge, two of the four defense attorneys and the five-member jury are all Navy officers (a jury of your peers apparently being a civilian thing).

But even beyond that, several other factors distinguish this court-martial and have made the proceedings often a standing room-only affair.

For one thing, the trial comes on the 30th anniversary of the summer that women were finally allowed to enter the previously all-male service academy in Annapolis, a milestone that highlights both the advances and the lingering tensions that accompanied that shift.

It also comes at a time when the academy is trying to respond to years of complaints -- including one from a Pentagon task force last year -- that it maintains a "hostile" environment for female students.

In this climate, defense attorneys have said, Owens and another Navy football player, who faces a court-martial for sexual misconduct in a separate case, are being used to make a point that the academy is finally cracking down on a long-standing problem.

The trial is presenting an eye-opening look at the culture within the academy. As buttoned-down and fresh-faced as the Mids you see strolling around Annapolis might look, they are still college students. The binge-drinking, the sloppy interpersonal relationships, the rule-breaking -- it doesn't seem much different from other campuses, according to testimony yesterday by a girlfriend of the accuser and a midshipman herself.

Like the Duke lacrosse case that exploded this year, the courts-martial involve athletes -- in Owens' case, a campus star who last year led his team to a bowl championship and an 8-4 season.

But the difference here is that Owens' accuser and her friends are athletes themselves.

This perhaps is what troubles me most about this case: More so than in other rape cases, these two Mids came together on what seemed to be a level playing field. There wasn't, or shouldn't have been, a power play going on here. There isn't that discomfiting impoverished-town-and-privileged-gown divide of the Duke case.

And yet now, Owens sits at the defense table, his family behind him, listening to often graphic testimony. With the charges pending, he was not allowed to graduate with his class this spring.

And the accuser -- whose name and those of her close friends are being withheld by The Sun and other news media as they generally do with alleged victims of sexual assault -- is getting the treatment that you would expect in such a case: She's been characterized as a heavy drinker who gets "aggressive" with alcohol and can black out and forget what happened after a binge.

Owens' attorneys seemed to be making the argument that the accuser and her friends had it in for the football team -- they had both dated players, and the relationships didn't work out, so they swore off going out with any more of them. The friend who testified yesterday said, though, that she remained friends with those exes -- and their teammates.

Including Owens, who was on that friend's instant-messaging buddy list and, in one of the more intriguing aspects of the case, messaged her after the encounter with the accuser, saying he needed to talk to her.

"I thought," she said, almost sadly, "he was a really good guy."

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