Court-martial begins in alleged Coast Guard rape

The court-martial of a U.S. Coast Guard member got underway Monday with a military prosecutor accusing Petty Officer 3rd Class Joe D. Newmans of being a “man on a mission” when he allegedly invaded a female colleague’s bedroom at her New Orleans apartment and raped her in late 2012.

A defense attorney painted a much different picture, telling the jury of eight Coast Guard members the sex was consensual and the woman reported a rape only when her boyfriend broke up with her.

Newmans, 22, sat sternly in his blue dress uniform during opening arguments in a rare military trial at the Hale Boggs Federal Building in New Orleans. The trial comes amid heavy political pressure for the military services to address what President Barack Obama has called a “corrosive” problem of sexual assaults.

Any kind of serious criminal prosecution is rare in the Coast Guard. For the year ending Sept. 30, just nine of its personnel faced general courts-martial — felony-level prosecutions in which the defendant could face more than a year in the brig. Only one of the defendants won acquittal, according to an annual report to Congress.

Last month, another Coast Guard member, Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Bush, 28, received six years in the brig after he was convicted on four counts of sexual assault, along with possession of child pornography, after a military trial in Virginia. Some of those crimes took place while Bush was stationed in New Orleans.

Newmans’ case appears to hinge on the question of consent. More specifically, it likely will focus on what the purported victim intended when she told Newmans to get a condom from another room on the night of Nov. 29, 2012, when Newmans lingered after a group study session that turned into a drinking party.

Lt. Sean Pribyl, the prosecutor, said the woman was startled when Newmans crawled into her bed, forcibly groped her and refused to accede to her demands to stop. He was too strong, Pribyl said.

“As she tries to pull his hand away, this may actually be the point where she gives up. She knows the conversation they’ve had. He’s been with some women,” Pribyl said.

She told him to get the condom because she wanted to avoid catching a disease and to buy some time, hoping he wouldn’t return to her room, Pribyl said. But he did, pinning her arms above her head and raping her, Pribyl said.

Newmans, who was set to leave the Coast Guard four days later, had met the woman in Coast Guard training and they had worked together in New Orleans.

Lt. Cmdr. Andrew Myers, a defense attorney, said the two struck up a close friendship that evolved into romance laced with heavy drinking.

A few months before the alleged attack, in July 2012, Newmans “got wasted” at a ballgame, passing out in the bathroom. Even afterward, the woman kept buying him beers, then kissed him in the backseat of the car on the ride back, Myers said.

“She’s slapping him in the face to wake him up so she can keep kissing him,” he said. They moved on to Bourbon Street, where “she’s making out with him all the way down the street. Her and Joe are club dancing for hours.”

In the meantime, Myers told the jury, the woman was struggling with her straitlaced military boyfriend, turning to Newmans for solace.

“(She) put herself between a rock and a hard place. The rock is her boyfriend in Pensacola. He’s a poster child for the military,” Myers said. Newmans “is a fun guy. He’s on Bourbon Street. He expresses emotions. She made a decision. She made a choice.”

Pribyl, however, said Newmans acted on an unrequited crush, crashing a study session the woman had arranged with other Coast Guard members at her apartment.

“Nothing was going to stop him,” Pribyl said. “It didn’t matter when she said stop, didn’t matter when she pressed her arm against him to push him away.”

The woman reported the alleged rape to the Coast Guard the following day, according to the service.

A nine-month Coast Guard investigation found evidence that Newmans “engaged in sexually related misconduct ranging from rape to assault.”

Rear Adm. Kevin S. Cook last year found “reasonable grounds” to try Newmans based on recommendations from the military equivalent of a grand jury proceeding.

Newmans, who faces counts of assault and rape, remains at a barracks in New Orleans, on administrative reassignment.

The woman is slated to testify Tuesday.

Six of the eight jurors must agree in order to convict Newmans under military law.

According to the Coast Guard, 196 sexual assault reports were logged in the service last year, up from 70 in 2009. The Coast Guard couldn’t immediately provide statistics on the number of courts-martial pending for sexual assault.

The complaints rose sharply in 2012, in line with a military-wide trend credited largely to a greater willingness by victims to report assaults in the wake of scandal and a national spotlight on the issue.

The Coast Guard, which falls under the Department of Homeland Security, has more than 43,000 active-duty members.

In December, Obama set a one-year deadline for the military to make progress on reforming how it handles such complaints, under threat of stiffer measures later. A defense spending bill that Obama signed in December included some changes, such as prohibiting military commanders from overturning sexual-assault convictions.