WASHINGTON (AP) -- A former U.S. Naval Academy football player was acquitted Thursday of sexually assaulting a classmate at a party, bringing to a close a case that drew wide attention at a time when the military is under scrutiny for how it deals with sexual assault.
The judge overseeing the case, Col. Daniel Daugherty, acquitted Joshua Tate of Nashville, Tenn., of one count of aggravated sexual assault. During a three-day trial, prosecutors argued that the woman Tate was accused of having sex with was too drunk to consent. But Tate's attorneys disagreed, arguing the woman was in control of her body and making decisions for herself at the party in 2012 where the alleged assault occurred.
The judge said in announcing his decision that the case's facts "present difficult and complex questions." And he said that the vast majority of testimony at the trial, testimony by midshipmen who attended the party, was shaded by alcohol consumption and the passing of time. But the judge concluded prosecutors had not proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard required for conviction.
One of Tate's attorneys, Jason Ehrenberg, said the 22-year-old's reaction to the decision was "one of great relief," and he called his client a "good young man." An attorney for the woman at the center of the case, meanwhile, said in a telephone interview that "deeply disappointed doesn't adequately describe" her reaction to the outcome.
The case was being closely watched as the military tries to improve the way it handles sexual assault cases. A Pentagon report released last year estimated that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted in the prior year and that thousands are unwilling to come forward out of fear their careers might be derailed.
Just hours before the verdict in Tate's case, a separate court-martial at Fort Bragg, N.C. also ended in favor of the defense. Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair was reprimanded and docked four months' pay but avoided prison time for carrying on a three-year affair with a captain who later claimed she had been sexually assaulted.
Ehrenberg, Tate's lawyer, said after the ruling that the military's focus on improving its sexual assault response had affected Tate's case, and he criticized what he said was a clearly political environment that had pushed the prosecution along. He said his client's case should never have gone to trial.
Ehrenberg pointed to the results of a preliminary hearing in 2013 in which an investigating officer recommended that Tate's case not move to court-martial, the military's equivalent of a trial.
The officer said there were reasonable grounds to believe a crime had occurred but that it would be difficult to prove, in part because of credibility problems with the alleged victim. The head of the Naval Academy, however, decided to move the case forward.
Still, Ehrenberg said his client's acquittal showed "the system worked."
Philip Cave, a retired Navy judge advocate who is now a private defense attorney and has followed the case but is not associated with it, said he, too, felt it should not have been prosecuted. The military loses credibility when it goes forward with cases like this one, he said, adding it leads to "increasing cynicism" and mistrust.
But Ryan Guilds, one of the woman's attorneys, said his client was "appalled by the lack of accountability" and said the case's outcome was a result of a "flawed military system" for reporting and investigating sexual assault. Another one of her attorneys, Susan L. Burke, said in a statement that the woman "hopes legitimate reforms of the military justice system will occur because of her case and those of other survivors."
The Associated Press generally doesn't name alleged victims of sexual assault.
More than a dozen witnesses testified at Tate's trial, including the woman, who answered questions for more than five hours over two days. She said she drank heavily on the night of the party at an off-campus house in Annapolis, Md., where the Naval Academy is located, and didn't remember being sexually assaulted. But she said she soon saw rumors on social media that a woman had had sex with multiple partners at the party, and she believed the rumors were about her. She said she confronted Tate, who confirmed they'd had sex.
Prosecutors initially accused not only Tate but also two other students, all of them football players at the time, of sexually assaulting the woman during the party. Tate was the only student ultimately brought to court-martial.
In addition to the sexual assault charge, Tate also faced charges of lying to investigators. The judge did not decide those Thursday, however, returning the decision on what to do to the head of the Naval Academy. The school said in a statement late Thursday that Tate, who was a third year student at the school, will resign in exchange for the withdrawal of the remaining charges.
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