At Naval Academy, Rape Case Casts Cloud on Military Justice
Each afternoon, Cordrea Brittingham plies the sweaty environs of his old high school gym, recording his workout regimen in a worn notebook so he can compare results with the men he hopes to be playing football with again soon: Shaka Amin Martin and Arion Keith Williams.
Until last season, the three were teammates at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Now they’re linked by a more notorious thread: allegations that they gang-raped a female classmate last year during an off-campus drinking party.
Brittingham, Martin and Williams were kicked off the team but avoided criminal prosecution by agreeing to resign from the academy. In fact, Brittingham and Williams said, the deal freed them from a life they’d come to despise: a structured, rigorous environment that prepared them for a military career they didn’t want.
Now, some critics wonder whether it was punishment at all.
The deal that placed their charges on the state’s inactive docket has fueled debate about the treatment of athletes at the Naval Academy.
“The point is that by us leaving the academy, we’re not admitting guilt. If we had to admit guilt, there wouldn’t have been any deal,” Brittingham said in a series of interviews. “I don’t have any regrets. I’m not the type.”
The woman who told police she awoke from a drunken stupor to find naked men on top of her remains at the academy, clinging to the remnants of her privacy and wrestling with doubts about agreeing to the deal, according to her mother. She declined to be interviewed for this story but allowed her mother to speak for her. The Washington Post does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.
The mother said her daughter felt compelled to agree to the deal because defense attorneys were poring over her sexual history, pushing for school records and a psychiatric evaluation.
“They were emotionally stalking my daughter, asking for all those things,” her mother said. If only “there were some way it could have been prosecuted without my daughter being put on trial.”
‘They’re Going to Do It Again’
The woman had dreamed of attending the Naval Academy since she was in kindergarten, her mother said. The men were high school football heroes who came to the academy primarily bent on achieving gridiron glory.
“They weren’t punished at all,” the mother said of the men. “There’s no doubt in my mind they’re going to do it again. It’s going to catch up with them.”
“The only problem we have with the academy,” she said, “is if the admissions board had recruited future naval officers instead of football players, they wouldn’t have been there in the first place.”
The Navy long has defended its recruiting practices, noting 78% of its varsity athletes have graduated in four years, which it says is a higher percentage than that at other Division I schools. Prosecutors declined to be interviewed for this story. Navy officials have said they had no role in brokering the deal for the former players.
Berlin, a tiny tourist stop just inland from the Ocean City resorts, sends few players to big-time football programs. At a 1997 news conference announcing his Navy scholarship, Brittingham, an A student, sobbed while being praised by Stephen Decatur High School Principal Lou Taylor.
“This young man who stands before you today is a super human being,” Taylor said on a videotape that Brittingham’s mother plays at her home here. “He is what I hope every student that graduates from Stephen Decatur represents.”
Williams and Brittingham went to the academy’s preparatory school in Newport, R.I., where they met Martin, who declined to be interviewed for this story. Martin was probably the best player, a 6-foot-2, 233-pound linebacker. Williams was the flashy one, cocky about his high school days in Detroit.
In late June, as they attended summer school after their second year at the academy, word spread that midshipman Elizabeth Vary was hosting a party at her family’s weekend place on the waterfront in Arnold, near Annapolis.
Martin heard about the party, Brittingham and Williams said, and they went along for the ride. At least a dozen midshipmen attended--many underage, many athletes, according to court records. At the time, Martin, Brittingham, Williams and the woman they were accused of raping were all 20.
“Taking Away Our Incentive for Staying”
The woman told police she got drunk and “passed out” in a bedroom. When she awoke, two men were sexually assaulting her, according to charging documents. She pushed them off and they fled the room. She identified them as Brittingham and Williams.
Later, they admitted to having sexual contact with her, and Brittingham told police she was too drunk to consent, the documents state. Williams told officers she was slipping in and out of consciousness, the documents state. They were arrested and spent three days in jail.
Released on bond and back at the academy, Williams and Brittingham were kicked off the team but dug in for a court battle.
“When we were accused, the perception was already out--'Football players? They must be guilty,’ ” Williams said. “We just took a bad rap for everything.”
Three months later, Martin was also charged with rape and sexual assault after his DNA sample matched evidence collected in the bedroom. It was a significant development because Martin had been expected to testify that he walked into the bedroom and saw his friends having sex with the woman. He was suspended from the team.
After a few months, the three realized they might never play football there again.
“That’s when the idea came: Maybe I don’t have to be going to the academy anymore,” Williams said. “They were taking away from us our incentive for staying at the academy.”
With the trial only weeks away, the victim agreed that prosecutors should accept the defense proposal: The players would leave the academy. There would be no trial, no jail time, no requirement to repay the Navy the estimated $60,000 to $80,000 each for their schooling. The charges would be placed on the inactive docket.
Race played a role in the decision, friends and sources familiar with the case said, although the former players steadfastly refused to discuss this. The men are black; the woman is white. The men feared a racist juror could turn the rest of the panel against them based solely on their race, friends and sources said.
The deal triggered a heated response in parts of the community and among some lawyers.
“Why did they leave the academy?” asked Eugene Fidell, a Washington lawyer who specializes in military cases. “This has all the earmarks of a deal. Obviously they felt some exposure here of a conviction. . . . There’s a sense that they haven’t paid a substantial penalty.”