Mid Spared Jail Time In Sex-offense Case

Acquitted of rape, ex-Navy QB Owens could be expelled

July 22, 2006|By BRADLEY OLSON | BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- The military jury that acquitted former Navy quarterback Lamar S. Owens Jr. of rape spared him yesterday from having to serve time in prison on a pair of related felonies stemming from a sexual encounter this year with a female midshipman.

Owens, a senior at the Naval Academy in Annapolis who was not allowed to graduate with his class in May because of the charges, could be expelled because he admitted to having sex in the school's dorm and with a female midshipman in his company or subgroup. If he is kicked out, he will likely be denied his diploma and officer's commission and forced to repay the cost of his taxpayer-funded education. Estimates for that cost have run as high as $160,000, though it was put at $140,000 in court yesterday.

If he is allowed to graduate with his commission and a degree in economics, he would become a Navy ensign and begin serving as a surface warfare officer.

On Thursday, jurors acquitted Owens, 22, of rape but convicted him of conduct unbecoming an officer and violating an order to stay away from the accuser after the incident, which occurred in her Naval Academy dormitory room in the early-morning hours of Jan. 29. Both charges are felonies in military law.

The Naval Academy released a statement yesterday saying it supported the court's decision but would review Owens' situation "to determine the best course of action."

"Midshipman Owens' behavior was found to be inappropriate and inconsistent with the character expected of our future Navy and Marine Corps officers," the statement said.

Owens, flanked by his family, a former football coach, his girlfriend and his pastor, appeared emotional when the sentence was read, as did his civilian attorney, Reid Weingarten.

Both wiped their eyes repeatedly. As the Navy judge dismissed the jury, Owens handed tissues to his father, mother and sister. Everyone who came to support him was tearful, and when the judge said, "This matter is now closed," Owens reached back over the rail in the courtroom to hug his father and then his mother.

The accuser and her family were not present yesterday for the sentence. Through a spokesperson, they declined to make a statement about the outcome.

Talking to reporters at the Washington Navy Yard, Weingarten said, "Justice was done today."

"I had tears in my eyes because this young man badly needed and received vindication," he said. "We started with a false allegation that could have put Lamar in prison for the rest of his life, so the fact that we're here is a very good feeling."

He added that the next step was to consult with academy leaders about Owens' future.

"I am sure that the academy will dispassionately consider this matter after what happened in this courtroom," he said, noting that he hoped the trial would be a "test case" for future allegations at all of the nation's service academies, which have struggled to hold offenders accountable in sexual misconduct cases.

Owens and his family declined to speak to reporters after the trial. During yesterday's hearing, however, he said he regretted the incident and hoped to become a naval officer.

Women's groups have said the verdict could work in favor of sexual offenders in the military, making victims less likely to report offenses.

Asked how the case's outcome will affect two sexual misconduct cases being brought in the next two months by the academy superintendent, Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the school said in a written response to questions: "This case reflects the fact that the Naval Academy treats seriously any allegations of sexual harassment, misconduct or assault and seeks to deter these types of unacceptable behaviors."

Yesterday, the jury of five academy officers - four men and one woman - rejected the prosecutor's recommendation to dismiss Owens from the Navy and handed down "no punishment" for the infractions.

Navy Cmdr. John Maksym, the judge in the trial, had permitted the jury to consider a maximum penalty of 18 months' confinement, 60 days' restriction, forfeiture of pay and dismissal from the academy.

In a short sentencing hearing yesterday that included testimony from Owens' former coach and teammates as well as an academy lawyer, Owens took the stand a second time and asked jurors to let him stay in the Navy.

Owens, who was named Navy's most valuable player last year after leading his team to an 8-4 season and a Poinsettia Bowl victory, said he regretted the negative publicity the trial brought to the institution.

"I deeply regret the unwanted attention I brought to the Naval Academy, and especially to the Naval Academy football team," he said.

Asked whether he still wanted to be a naval officer, he paused briefly and said, "Of course."

A member of the jury asked Owens what he had learned from the experience and what he thought was the most important trait of a naval officer.

Owens said that he had learned to be more careful when making decisions, and that the most important trait for an officer is respect, both given and received.

During his trial, Owens acknowledged that he had sex with the female midshipman but maintained that it was consensual.

Defense attorneys mounted a determined 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 an instant-message conversation with Owens from her computer.

As Owens walked away from the courtroom wearing his white dress uniform, Bill McKinney, Owens' pastor at the Mariners Church, said, "We are thankful to God that justice was done."

brad.olson@baltsun.com

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