Putting the Accuser on Trial

A case at the Naval Academy illustrates the military’s problems with sexual violence.

Coverage of the case of a female midshipman at the Naval Academy who accused three classmates of raping her has exposed some disturbing problems at one of the institutions responsible for training U.S. military leaders. A preliminary hearing, in which case defense attorneys kept the victim on the stand for 20 hours with irrelevant and degrading questions, ended this week here in Washington. The military courts seem to have an implicit policy of discouraging victims from seeking justice by any means possible.

To be sure, raising questions about an accuser’s credibility might be a legitimate legal strategy in some kinds of criminal cases and in certain limited circumstances. If an accuser has a history of lying to law enforcement or stands to gain materially from a conviction, or if the prosecution relies heavily on eyewitness testimony, then a court needs to examine carefully whether a person is credible. Yet those concerns are not relevant in almost all cases involving sexual violence, and they certainly aren’t relevant here. Only in the military’s justice system would a presiding officer allow several days of cross-examination about a victim’s underwear, her dancing, and her behavior during oral sex without requiring a compelling argument for the relevance of these questions to the case.

They were not, and this was a preliminary hearing, not even a court-martial. The strategy of the defense seems to be to browbeat the victim into withdrawing from the case. That such a strategy could be even be tolerated explains why sexual violence generally remains unreported in the military.

The situation at the Naval Academy seems to be particularly grave because of the school’s strict rules on student behavior. The midshipmen are not allowed to have alcohol or hold hands with a member of the opposite sex on campus. As a result, according to one professor, school officials aren’t able to talk about sexuality with students. When the official policy is that all sexual contact will be disciplined, even the most well-intentioned faculty are in a bind when they try to encourage mutual respect.

That said, the victim’s treatment at the hearing suggests that it is unlikely that midshipmen would receive the right message from the Navy, even if faculty and senior officers could talk openly about the problem. Given what seems to be a pervasive attitude that it is acceptable to take advantage of a person who is incapacitated or through physical force, commanding officers should not have final authority to decide cases involving sexual violence.

Max Ehrenfreund

Max Ehrenfreund is a former Monthly intern and a reporter at The Washington Post. Find him on Twitter: @MaxEhrenfreund