NEW LONDON, Conn. – The first student court-martial in the 130-year history of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy began Monday with the cadet pleading not guilty to charges of rape, extortion and assault.
Attorneys spent the morning questioning potential jurors, all Coast Guard officers, about their views on premarital sex, discrimination, contraception and religion.
The sometimes-uncomfortable process foreshadowed what attorneys expect to be a week of embarrassing testimony at the academy, where cadets in pressed shirts and blazers train to become officers. The trial is likely to provide a far less distinguished view of student life there, one involving sex and drinking to the brink of unconsciousness.
Cadet Webster Smith, 22, is on trial facing seven sex-related charges stemming from accusations made by three women, as well as charges of disobeying an order, unlawful entry and being absent without leave.
Pretrial testimony in the case has centered on several nights of heavy drinking, including one in June 2005 in Annapolis, Md.
Friends have testified that a woman who accused Smith of raping her — his on-again, off-again girlfriend — passed out and was enraged the next morning when she learned she and Smith had had sex.
Defense attorneys counter that the couple had a lengthy sexual relationship that continued until the week before the alleged rape and resumed the semester after. The alleged rape was reported after attorneys say the consensual sexual relationship resumed.
Prosecutors presented no DNA or medical evidence during pretrial hearings. On Monday, they pressed potential jurors on whether they could convict someone based solely on the convincing testimony of someone who said she was raped.
The trial is also expected to include undertones of race relations. Smith is black, his accusers are white and defense attorneys say the women conspired against him.
Defense attorney Merle J. Smith, who is not related to the cadet, said it's easy to forget that the service academy is a campus full of college students.
"They're youth between the age of 18-24, and they're under intense pressure — academic pressure and professional training folded over top of it — that is far more intense than your normal college," the attorney said.
In an essay for the school's alumni magazine this month, Capt. Doug Wisniewski, the outgoing commandant of cadets, said it's becoming harder to bring students in line with the school's rigid expectations.
"The society from which cadets come is simply disrespectful, self-focused and morally relativistic," he wrote. "The open sex culture adored in the media and online environments have translated into incredible sexual liberties at the high school level, which are, in my opinion, degrading of women.
"Too many cadets see little problem when they illegally consume alcohol while underage."
The court-martial is expected to take a week.