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Academy: 3 midshipmen charged with sexual assault

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - The U.S. Naval Academy on Wednesday charged three midshipmen - all current or former football players - with sexually assaulting a female student at an off-campus house in Annapolis more than a year ago.

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The academy said in a news release that the male midshipmen are being charged with two violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. One charge involves rape, sexual assault or other sexual misconduct. The other is for making a false official statement.

The academy did not identify the three male students, and it was not immediately clear if they have an attorney.

Two of the students were football players this past season, but they are not on the team anymore. Another is still on the team, but he has been suspended pending the outcome of the case.

``The case is still in the pre-trial phase, so any further comment on this ongoing investigation would be inappropriate,'' Cmdr. John Schofield, an academy spokesman, said in a statement.

The case has brought renewed focus to how the nation's military academies handle reports of sexual assaults. The service academies have struggled for years with sexual assault and harassment allegations, and a string of sexual assault cases has recently drawn attention in Congress and at the Pentagon and The White House. Many of the assault cases involve alcohol.

President Barack Obama addressed the sexual assault problem when he spoke at the academy's commissioning ceremony last month. The president said those who commit sexual assault threaten the trust and discipline that make the military strong.

The alleged assault occurred in April 2012. The woman's attorney, Susan Burke, has said the woman woke up with bruises after a night of heavy drinking and later learned from friends and social media that three football players she considered friends were claiming to have had sex with her while she was intoxicated and blacked out.

``My client and I are cautiously optimistic that justice will finally prevail in this case,'' Burke said in a statement Wednesday. ``Even if this case is successfully prosecuted, the larger problem remains: rape cases in the military are controlled by untrained and biased commanders whose career interests may be served by covering up incidents like this one. The Naval Academy's handling of this case raises troubling questions about how the victim and the football players were treated. This case reflects why rape victims are fearful and skeptical of the military justice system.''

Burke has noted that the academy closed an investigation into the same allegations last year without charges.

The woman reported the allegations to Navy criminal investigators and was disciplined for drinking while the athletes, one of whom discouraged her from cooperating, were permitted to continue playing, Burke has said. The female midshipman remains a student in good standing.

The Navy agreed to reopen the investigation this year after the woman sought legal help, Burke said. The new investigation involved wiretapped conversations that Burke said further substantiated her client's account.

Burke said the scheduled graduation of one of the three students was put on hold because of the allegations, while the other two were not scheduled to graduate this year.

The academy announced on Monday that Vice Adm. Michael Miller, the academy's superintendent, had decided to forward the case to Article 32 proceedings, which are held to determine if there is enough evidence for a court-marital.

Schofield said earlier this week that the initial Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigation into the case had been completed and reviewed.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski recently wrote to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that she is ``deeply troubled by the lackluster response from the superintendents to increasing rates of sexual assault within their academies.''

Mikulski, D-Md., is a member of the U.S. Naval Academy's Board of Visitors, which acts as a board of trustees for the Annapolis military college.

``If we are going to end sexual assault in the military, we must start by changing the culture in the service academies where future leaders are created,'' Mikulski wrote.

Other Navy football players have faced assault allegations in the past.

In 2006, Lamar Owens Jr., the team's starting quarterback, was acquitted of rape but found guilty of lesser charges in a military court. He was expelled from the school. Another one-time member of the team, Kenny Ray Morrison, was convicted in 2007 of sexually assaulting a female classmate at a Washington hotel. He was sentenced to two years in the Navy brig.

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