The superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy said today that he did not bow to political pressure in recommending court martials for two academy football players accused of sexual assault, even though his legal advisers recommended that the charges against them be dismissed.
Vice Admiral Michael Miller said at a military hearing that despite heightened scrutiny from the White House and Pentagon to tackle sexual assault in the military, he recommended the court martials because he believed there were "reasonable grounds" that they committed wrongdoing.
The high-profile case involved allegations that three midshipmen had sexually assaulted a female midshipman at an off-campus party in April 2012. After an extensive preliminary hearing in the summer of 2013, a judge recommended to Miller that all three cases be dropped, mainly because he said the accuser lacked credibility.
While Miller dismissed charges against one midshipman, Tra'ves Bush of Johnston, S.C., he referred two others, Eric Graham of Eight Mile, Ala., and Josh Tate of Nashville, Tenn., to court martials.
Two weeks ago, Miller dismissed the abusive sexual contact charge against Graham after government prosecutors said they did not have a strong enough case against him.
In a rare move, the judge in the case granted a motion by Tate's defense team that Miller should appear at a court hearing to explain what they saw as "unlawful command influence" in the case. They argued that Miller was overly selective in deciding to prosecute only Graham's case. If the judge deems Miller did in fact do either of these things, he could throw Tate's case out.
At today's hearing, Miller testified that he did not feel pressured to bring the case to trial because of President Obama's calls for tougher handling of sexual assault cases, including a major speech at the Naval Academy in May 2013.
"The president was expressing, as he is entitled to do, his strong disagreement with sexual assault," Miller said after one of Tate's defense lawyers asked him whether that speech compelled him take strong action in the case.
At the end of the preliminary hearing in August, the presiding judge in the case recommended dropping the charges against the three midshipmen. But Miller said he wanted them to go to trial because he wanted more evidence.
When Tate's attorneys pressed him further, he acknowledged that he had not read through all the evidence in the initial report on the case.
Miller said he also recommended the court martials because additional reports acknowledged reasonable grounds of wrongdoing existed against two of the midshipmen even if there was insufficient evidence to make that case in court.
Miller's top legal adviser, Captain Bob O'Neill, also testified today and said that he too had suggested to Miller that the charges be dropped. O'Neill said this was the only time Miller had ever gone against O'Neill's recommendation in a criminal case.
The judge in today's case noted that Miller had discretion, as the "convening authority" in the case, to recommend whether and how it proceeded even if "you may not like his decision."
Closing arguments in the hearing will be heard Feb. 11.