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U.S. Naval Academy superintendent grilled in sex assault case

A U.S. Coast Guard boat patrols outside the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland REUTERS/Molly Riley
A U.S. Coast Guard boat patrols outside the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland REUTERS/Molly Riley

By Lacey Johnson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lawyers for a U.S. Naval Academy football player accused of sexual assault grilled the school's superintendent on Friday over whether he was politically influenced to proceed with a court-martial.

President Barack Obama has vowed to curb sexual misconduct in the military, and lawyers for midshipman Joshua Tate say they want to know if any "unlawful command influence" motivated Superintendent Vice Admiral Michael Miller in the case.

Tate, a junior from Nashville, Tennessee, was among three Academy football players charged in the sexual assault of a female midshipman at a party in April 2012.

Tate's defense attorney, Jason Ehrenberg, questioned Miller at a Washington hearing on whether bad press about sexual assault in the military and public statements made by his superiors, including Obama, had influenced his decision.

Miller testified that he understood Obama was "very concerned with sexual assault in the military" and "was certainly aware" that the Naval Academy was under scrutiny for the way it handles such cases.

The woman at the center of this case testified at an Article 32 hearing, held to determine if a trial was warranted, saying that she drank heavily at the party and remembered little of what happened. Reuters does not generally report the names of sexual assault victims.

Charges against one of the men were dropped in October, following the Article 32 hearing.

Miller went ahead with courts-martial against Tate and the third player, Eric Graham, 23, of Eight Mile, Alabama, despite advice from his legal counsel and a military judge to drop the cases.

At Friday's motions hearing, the superintendent acknowledged making his decision against the advice of his top legal adviser.

The defense attorney asked if he had seen what the defense characterized as "35 separate examples of either lies or credibility issues" from the woman in the Article 32 report.

"Credibility issues, yes," Miller replied on the stand.

Charges against Graham, the third player accused, were dropped this month, largely because Navy investigators had failed to read him his rights.

Tate faces charges of aggravated sexual assault and making false statements. He is scheduled to go on trial in March.

In a speech at the Naval Academy's graduation ceremony in May, Obama urged the new officers to stamp out sexual assault in their ranks. He approved reforms last month aiming to stem the military's sexual assault crisis.

The U.S. Defense Department said last month that there were slightly more than 5,000 reports of sexual assaults across the U.S. military in the 2013 fiscal year, up about 50 percent from the year before. The fiscal year starts in October.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Cynthia Johnston, Cynthia Osterman and Gunna Dickson)

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