Federal Lawsuit Seeks Removal of U.S. Naval Academy Superintendent From Rape Case

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Federal Lawsuit Seeks Removal of U.S. Naval Academy Superintendent From Rape Case

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A lawsuit filed after the close of an Article 32 hearing in a Naval Academy rape case argues the military justice system is biased against victims of sexual violence.

On Thursday, a female midshipman, who has accused three former U.S. Naval Academy football players of sexually assaulting her at a party, filed a federal lawsuit asking the court to direct the school’s superintendent, vice admiral Michael H. Miller, to recuse himself from the military proceedings, claiming he is biased and is standing in the way of justice in the case.

As reported by Rewire‘s Adele Stan, during the Article 32 hearing on her allegations, the victim was subjected to more than than 30 hours of cross examination by 12 defense attorneys that included degrading questions about her sexual history. Article 32 hearings are the military’s equivalent of a grand jury proceeding; the kinds of questions directed at the victim would have been prohibited in a civilian proceeding. Additionally, her attorney has been prevented from participating to protect her rights, by being shut out of the Article 32 process. According to the lawsuit, these actions, as well as comments Miller made to returning midshipmen that the administration was unhappy about the negative publicity the case has generated for the Naval Academy, has made it difficult for the victim to press ahead with her case.

“The victim in the U.S. Naval Academy case has faced an unconscionable attack on her character and her dignity,” said Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, a human rights organization advocating on behalf of service members who have been sexually assaulted in the military, in a statement in connection with the filing of the lawsuit. “She has been re-victimized through obvious attempts to intimidate and silence her. She has again been victimized by a judicial system that, at its core, is fundamentally broken. Anyone observing this case would have to wonder, who is really on trial here?” Parrish added, “The fact that it required a pro bono civilian attorney to instigate any real action by the academy is indicative of the utter failure of the military justice system.

The case has unfolded at a time when the military is under scrutiny over its handling of sexual violence in its ranks. The U.S. Department of Defense said in May that it estimates 26,000 service members were targets of unwanted sexual contact last year, but only 3,374 incidents of sexual assault were reported, underscoring the chronic and persistent nature of the issue. Advocates claim the Article 32 process exacerbates this problem and has become another way to intimidate victims and keep the military sexual violence crisis out of public scrutiny.

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According to U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard Harding, of the few victims who do report, approximately 30 percent “walk away and refuse to cooperate before they got to the courthouse door,” refusing to go forward with a court martial after suffering the abuse they endure during the Article 32 hearings. Some lawmakers, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), want to take sexual assault cases out of the hands of the military chain of command, a proposal that is expected to be debated in the Senate this fall. “It is astounding that our military leaders and lawmakers have allowed the current system to continue unchecked for so long,” said Parrish. “The persistent lack of regard for victims and absence of any genuine effort to protect them is reprehensible. While our military leaders testify that they are finally getting serious about ‘zero tolerance,’ their actions and mistreatment of victims belie that sincerity.”

Among the calls for reform include an overall push to bring the military justice process more in line with the federal civilian grand jury system. For example, instead of one hearing officer appointed by the commander to investigate allegations, some critics argue there should be a panel whose sole job is to determine if probable cause exists to send the case to trial—something more akin to the federal grand jury. Additionally, reformers suggest that the defense be excluded from the hearing, as in the federal system. These simple reforms, advocates claim, would prevent further trauma to sexual violence survivors by giving them some protections against commanders concerned principally with the interests of the military, expedite the investigative and charging process, and allow an impartial panel to determine whether a case should proceed to trial.

The academy has not yet responded to the lawsuit, nor has Miller made a final decision about whether to refer the underlying case to a court martial based on the evidence gathered during the Article 32 hearing, which concluded Tuesday.