Judge rebukes prosecution in Owens rape trial

Navy, defense close arguments

verdict could be returned today

July 20, 2006|By BRADLEY OLSON | BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- A military judge sharply chided a Navy prosecutor yesterday during closing arguments in the eight-day rape court-martial of former Naval Academy quarterback Lamar Owens, telling the jury that the lawyer made "a grave error."

In statements projected on a screen for the jury, Navy prosecutor Cmdr. David Wilson misquoted testimony of the accuser's boyfriend. The boyfriend had testified "She thought she was raped," but the display showed the alleged victim telling him "I have been raped."

"That never happened," Cmdr. John Maksym said loudly to the jury. "There was no such testimony. ... You are to disregard it as though it never happened."

The reprimand stopped Wilson in the middle of his closing argument, just as he was describing the prosecution's version of events: that Owens went uninvited into a female midshipman's dorm room early Jan. 29, raped her and abruptly left after she repeatedly resisted.

"She did not want to have consensual sexual intercourse with him; she testified to that," Wilson said, then described the accuser's version of the rape and her attempts to resist Owens, and his behavior after the encounter.

"He said in his testimony that she was `resting peacefully.' That's something you normally hear when someone's deceased," said Wilson, one of two Navy prosecutors in the case. "He got out of Dodge as soon as possible. ... He was scared. He knew he did something wrong, so he got up and left."

Reid Weingarten, one of Owens' four lawyers, gave a powerful and uninterrupted closing argument attacking the credibility of the woman and her inability to remember key elements of the night, as well as statements she made that he said were "obviously false."

Occasionally chuckling while characterizing the prosecution's case, he called its theory "preposterous."

"So Lamar Owens was just prowling around, looking for sleeping lasses and he comes upon the room of [the woman]," Weingarten said. "Great news, she's asleep!"

He said that behavior was "inconsistent" with Owens' character, and asserted that she consented to sex with him, regretted it and used the academy's history of not punishing alleged rape victims for conduct violations to avoid being punished for her untoward behavior.

Weingarten also said academy officials were using Owens as a scapegoat.

"A bright, attractive midshipman, pushed by her friends, with a need for immunity, cried rape," Weingarten said. "And a system, needing to look like it was tough on rape, having a star quarterback in its sights, took the bait. And here we are."

The Sun is not identifying the woman - a Naval Academy senior - because she is an alleged victim of sexual assault.

A verdict could come today, since conviction by a military jury does not require a unanimous decision, only a two-thirds majority. In this trial, since the jury is composed of five Naval Academy officers, four would have to vote to convict the 22-year-old Owens.

Owens, who was not allowed to graduate in May, is charged with rape, conduct unbecoming an officer and violating a military protective order not to go near his accuser. The rape charge carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, but such a penalty is rare in the military.

Closing arguments largely mirrored witness testimony, which has pitted the woman's credibility against potentially incriminating statements Owens made in a recorded conversation after their encounter.

Wilson asked jurors to focus on three factors: that the woman had no motive to lie; that she had a visceral reaction to what happened immediately after Owens left her room, sobbing uncontrollably; and Owens' behavior afterward.

Owens apologized several times on the tape, which was played last week in the Washington Navy Yard courtroom, and said, "I wanted to kill myself" when he woke up that morning.

Wilson said the tape was "a window into Midshipman Owens' soul."

Weingarten said Owens made the statements to try to get his accuser to "back off," wishing to avoid a confrontation.

He asked the jurors to focus on five factors: gaps in the woman's memory that made it impossible for her to remember whether she invited Owens to her room; apparent inconsistencies in her testimony and that of her friends; an allegation that the woman destroyed a computer instant message conversation she had with Owens just before the encounter; the unlikely theory that Owens was "prowling" in the halls, looking for someone to rape; and that the woman was sleeping and unconscious only for the 20 minutes during the encounter, but before and after was able to send instant messages on her computer.

He asked jurors to imagine they were "out at sea" and had an "important strategic decision to make" and had to make it based on the perceptions of one of two shipmates: One who was intoxicated, had a history of blackouts and "untruths," who had blacked out during a critical period; or someone like Owens.

"There is not one chance on God's green Earth that you would rely on the word of that first shipmate," he said. "This is a wonderful young man who exercised bad judgment for five minutes. ... Send this case back to Annapolis and let them deal with this in ways that they traditionally deal with such mistakes."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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