Mid acquitted of rape

Ex-Navy quarterback is convicted of lesser charges

July 21, 2006|By BRADLEY OLSON AND ANDREA F. SIEGEL | BRADLEY OLSON AND ANDREA F. SIEGEL,SUN REPORTERS

WASHINGTON -- Former Navy quarterback Lamar S. Owens Jr. was found not guilty of rape by a military jury last night but was convicted of two lesser charges stemming from a late-night sexual encounter with a female midshipman in her dormitory room last January.

The verdict came after nearly 10 hours of deliberations by a jury of five Naval Academy officers at his court-martial.

The panel found Owens guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer and of violating a military restraining order to stay away from the woman.

The defense immediately asked the military judge to throw out the conduct charge, and the judge, Navy Cmdr. John Maksym, said he will hear arguments about that today.

Owens, 22, who acknowledged that he had sex with the female midshipman Jan. 29 but maintained that it was consensual, stood at attention as the verdict was read and displayed no immediate reaction.

His accuser and her family were not in the courtroom in the Washington Navy Yard to hear the verdict, which came on the ninth day of the court-martial.

"Our strongest reaction right now is relief," high-powered lawyer Reid Weingarten, the lead defense attorney for Owens, said afterward. "The rape charge was a horrible charge, and the jury came back with the right verdict."

He predicted that the judge would throw out the conduct charge today.

Defense attorneys had mounted a furious assault on the character of the accuser, alleging that she was a binge drinker who had sent a computer instant message to Owens inviting him to her room, and then blacked out during consensual sex. Owens' attorneys also alleged that she deleted the instant messages from her computer.

Last Friday, with the jury out of the room, Maksym said Weingarten "eviscerated the alleged victim during cross-examination" in a manner that was "difficult to endure." The accuser denied inviting Owens to her room.

The two military prosecutors declined to comment, and Naval Academy officials said they are withholding comment until Owens is sentenced.

The finding means the jury believed the sex was consensual, as Owens contended, but was in violation of academy rules.

If convicted of rape, Owens could have faced a sentence of up to life in prison, though such a long sentence is rare. The maximum penalty for each of the other two convictions is two years in a Navy brig. The jury will sentence Owens after hearing from prosecution and defense witnesses, which could start as early as today.

But Owens, who was not allowed to graduate with his class in May because of the charges, could be expelled from the academy in an administrative hearing, denied his diploma and forced to repay the $160,000 cost of his taxpayer-funded education.

Through her victim advocate, the accuser and her family declined to make a statement. The Sun is not identifying the woman, a 20-year-old Naval Academy senior, because she has alleged sexual assault.

The court-martial has been closely watched by advocates for women who have been critical of the academy's approach to allegations of sexual assault, as well as by some who contend that male midshipmen and others are being scapegoated by a Navy bent on reforming its reputation for hostility to its female students.

Anita Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the Miles Foundation, an organization that tracks violence against women in the military, said Owens' acquittal highlights the military's flawed system of prosecuting rape. "Unfortunately the current Uniform Code of Military Justice doesn't support the prosecution of these date rapes, because the terminology in the current code says, `by force and without consent,' and these type of assaults do not always include force."

She said Owens' acquittal, as well as the acquittal of a U.S. Coast Guard Academy cadet on a rape charge in June, may prevent rape victims from coming forward.

"As with all assault victims, you have issues of shame and self-blame. In the military, you have the fear of career impact, the ongoing issue of safety," she said.

The trial reopened old wounds for the academy.

About a dozen midshipmen testified about the negative environment for women at the school, the prevalence of underage drinking, and tensions between football players and other midshipmen.

An academy spokeswoman said the college is unaware of any court-martial cases resulting in a rape conviction in the school's 161-year history.

Two other sexual misconduct cases, including that of another football player, are being brought in the next two months by Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the Naval Academy superintendent.

Throughout the nine days of testimony, the accuser seemed to be as much on trial as Owens.

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