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U.S. Naval Academy head to face grilling over sex assault trial

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[January 24, 2014]  WASHINGTON (Reuters)  Lawyers for a U.S. Naval Academy football player accused of sexual assault will grill the school's superintendent on Friday over whether he was politically influenced to proceed with a court-martial.

Key among questions for Superintendent Vice Admiral Michael Miller at a Washington hearing could be whether there was "unlawful command influence" stemming from President Barack Obama's vow to curb sexual misconduct in the military, according to lawyers in the case.

The cadet, Joshua Tate, a junior from Nashville, Tennessee, was among three Academy football players charged with sexually assaulting a female midshipman at a party in April 2012.

The woman testified at an Article 32 hearing, held to determine if a trial was warranted, that she drank heavily at the party and remembered little of what happened. Reuters does not generally report the names of sexual assault victims.

Charges against one of the men were dropped in October following the Article 32 hearing.

Miller went ahead with courts-martial against Tate and the third player, Eric Graham, 23, of Eight Mile, Alabama, despite advice from his legal counsel and a military judge to drop the cases.

Charges against Graham were dropped this month in large part because Navy investigators failed to read him his rights.

Tate faces charges of aggravated sexual assault and making false statements. He is scheduled to go on trial in March.

Defense attorneys have argued that Miller went ahead with the cases because he was facing political and media pressure, including from the U.S. Congress. The hearing on Friday will hear motions, including on whether to admit or exclude evidence.

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The case followed Obama's speech at the Naval Academy's graduation ceremony in May in which he urged the new officers to stamp out sexual assault in their ranks. He approved reforms last month that aimed to stem the military's sexual assault crisis.

The Defense Department said last month that there were slightly more than 5,000 reports of sexual assaults across the U.S. military in the 2013 fiscal year, up about 50 percent from the year before. The fiscal year starts in October.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; editing by Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman)

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