Academy may face fallout on Owens

Decision to expel or graduate him could draw anger

August 07, 2006|By BRADLEY OLSON | BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTER

On the heels of Lamar S. Owens Jr.'s acquittal on rape charges, the Naval Academy faces a tough choice: Graduate the former Navy football star and give him a commission, or expel him for violating academy rules and saddle him with $140,000 in debt and no degree.

Either option could bring tremendous political fallout.

The former would anger women's groups and members of Congress who have long pressured the academy to crack down on sexual misconduct and reform a culture that has widely been described as hostile to women.

The latter would draw the ire of powerful alumni and possibly minority groups, some of whom object to what they say is a stark double standard in Owens' case.

Four witnesses - including current midshipmen and recent graduates - were granted immunity for agreeing to testify at last month's court-martial, according to court testimony. Two female midshipmen - Owens' accuser and her friend - admitted to underage drinking, renting an off-campus house and other possible rules violations. A recent graduate and former Navy football player testified to having a "social encounter" with the accuser at Bancroft Hall, potentially a rules violation for both. The fourth witness never took the stand.

If Owens is kicked out, it would be for violating academy rules. Owens is African-American; the four granted immunity are white.

"Will they be able to find a legitimate reason to differentiate his treatment from the witnesses who were immunized?" asked Charlotte Cluverius, a former academy law instructor who defends military clients in Washington. "They can do whatever they want and don't necessarily need to justify it. ... Hopefully, they will be as fair as possible with Midshipman Owens."

The prosecution of Owens in a highly publicized case followed sharp criticism in Pentagon studies of the academy's handling of sexual assault and harassment complaints.

Since 2001, two midshipmen of 39 accused of sexual misconduct have been convicted at trial. One was for a rape charge in civilian court; the other was for child pornography in a military trial. An academy spokesman said the school does not know of any case in which a midshipman has been convicted of rape at court-martial.

Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the academy superintendent, has taken a zero-tolerance stance toward such conduct. He is bringing charges this month against an oceanography professor who allegedly made explicit sexual comments to a female midshipman and next month in another sexual misconduct case involving a male midshipman.

Defense attorneys for the two and Owens have alleged that Rempt is on a witch hunt to prove he takes sexual assault seriously.

Similar situation

Rempt, who will decide Owens' future, finds himself in a situation similar to one he faced three years ago when he came to the academy. Largely credited as an aggressive reformer of the school's macho culture, Rempt dealt in 2003 with a difficult rape case and a reluctant, psychologically troubled victim.

Rempt opted not to take the case to trial, instead expelling the accused midshipman for rules violations. That decision brought criticism from women's and victim advocacy groups.

Now, in Owens' case, he is being criticized for bringing the charges.

"You had the academy administration leaping into a ... fairly difficult `he said, she said' case, providing immunity to witnesses and taping phone calls," said John Howland, a 1964 academy graduate who runs a nonprofit organization that distributes news to academy graduates. "That's the kind of stuff you do when you're after the mafia."

Several prominent alumni arranged for Owens' legal defense.

Owens was acquitted of rape last month but convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer and violating a protective order to stay away from his accuser. Although he was sentenced to "no punishment," Owens still could face expulsion for what he testified was consensual sex in the academy dormitory between him and the accuser.

Midshipmen caught breaking those rules often are expelled, according to lawyers who handle such cases.

Cmdr. Ed Austin, an academy spokesman, said he could not comment on any of the trials or Owens' future because the matter is under review. He said there is no timeline for Rempt to decide Owens' fate.

Air Force scandal

Temporarily immunizing accusers in rape cases from being punished for rules violations is not unusual and stems from procedures put in motion after a 2003 scandal at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

A number of female cadets had come forward to say that their rape allegations were not taken seriously and that they were punished severely - even expelled - for rules violations. Since then, most accusers are temporarily granted immunity during any rape investigations and judicial proceedings against their alleged attackers but subsequently ordered to undergo counseling as punishment, according to victims' advocates and military lawyers.

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