How Sun tackled difficult issues in Owens case

Public Editor

July 30, 2006|By PAUL MOORE | PAUL MOORE,PUBLIC EDITOR

The acquittal last week of a former Naval Academy quarterback on charges of raping a female midshipman ended a high-profile court-martial that underscored several issues - the military definition of rape, the male-dominated culture of the academy and the difficulty of bringing "date rape" cases to trial.

The trial of senior midshipman Lamar S. Owens shed light on the serious problem of heavy alcohol consumption among college students. It also highlighted an aggressive effort by the academy's superintendent, Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, to reduce institutional hostility toward women.

For The Sun's Bradley Olson, the court-martial was the culmination of months of reporting that began soon after Jan. 29, when Owens and the female midshipman had a sexual encounter in her dorm room after a night of drinking. She later accused him of rape. He maintained the encounter was consensual.

During the two-week trial, a number of readers asked questions, offered opinions or simply reacted to the newspaper's articles about the case.

Jeffrey Smith's July 21 e-mail represented a common question from readers: "Why is it that the man's name in a sexual assault case is all over the news and the Internet but a woman's name is not mentioned?"

Michael Naver asked: "What is the race of the alleged victim? And why haven't you reported it?" (Lamar Owens is black.)

It is the policy of The Sun - and the policy of most news organizations - to withhold the person's name when the accuser is the alleged victim of a sexual assault. Each Sun article about the trial contained a sentence to this effect.

That doesn't mean, however, that the questions of whether to reveal the name of an accuser is not a topic of debate among journalists. Olson said all the reporters covering the trial discussed this issue.

"We realized again that a big reason the alleged victim's name is not used is because of the aggressive way that accusers are cross-examined and have their characters attacked in trials," he said. "We also talked about if it would be appropriate to reveal her name after Owens was acquitted. We concluded, however, that an acquittal doesn't mean she mean she lied or that Owens was innocent, just that there wasn't enough evidence to convict."

The accuser's race was considered irrelevant to the reporting because it was never an issue during the trial. "Neither side has ever discussed it, so it made no sense to include it in the stories," Olson said.

Owens' acquittal also showed how difficult it is to get a sexual assault conviction under the military's current statute, which requires proof that rape was committed "by force and without consent." A new military law that will revise the definition of consent will not take effect until October 2007, Olson reported in a July 10 article published the day the trial began.

Sun columnists Jean Marbella and Susan Reimer supplemented Olson's coverage with their views on the Naval Academy culture and the effects of binge drinking. Marbella's July 14 column examined how 30 years after women were allowed to enter the previously all-male academy, this incident and a recent Pentagon report highlight the tensions that still exist among male and female midshipmen.

In her July 25 column, Reimer sees the lesson for young women: "If you choose to drink yourself into oblivion, you bear some responsibility for and expose yourself to whatever happens next."

Janet Doyle was one of many readers who responded to Reimer's column: "Ever since Lamar Owens was charged, I thought this never would have happened had the young woman in question not been drunk," Doyle said. "Thanks for addressing this issue."

Beyond the larger issues that emerged from this case, it is clear that the lives of two promising young people have been scarred forever. Owens was not allowed to graduate with his class and could still be expelled. Whether he can continue his career in the Navy has not been decided. The accuser faces the possibility that her conduct on the night of Jan. 29 - fairly or unfairly - will always affect her career and her life.

Olson recounted a potential juror telling a defense attorney that he did not want to serve because two lives have been ruined and "there is no way to make things right again." Even though he understood the importance of chronicling what happened in this case, Olson said he often felt the same way.

"I would come home every night, hug my sleepy daughters and pray nothing in their lives ever comes close to this," he said.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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