First Court-Martial at Coast Guard Academy Set to Begin for Sex-Assault Case

At the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, where cadets in pressed shirts and gold-buttoned blazers train to become officers, court testimony this week could offer a far less distinguished view of student life: one including sex and drinking to the brink of unconsciousness.

Cadet Webster Smith, 22, of Houston, faces charges including rape, sodomy, extortion and assault. His court-martial, the first of its kind in the 130-year history of the academy, was to begin Monday.

Smith had faced misconduct accusations from several female cadets, ranging from rape to improper touching. Some charges were later dropped, but others were added.

Academy officials have said they would not comment on the allegations before the court-martial.

Pretrial testimony has centered around several nights of heavy drinking, including one in June 2005 in Annapolis, Md.

Friends have testified that the 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.

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.

Referring to the O.J. Simpson case, defense attorney Merle J. Smith, who is not related to the cadet, said: "There's no way I could cast myself as Johnnie Cochran and present a member of the administration who had the elements of the Los Angeles police department," said Smith. "It's not here."

The attorney 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," Merle Smith said.

A jury comprising Coast Guard officers will decide whether to convict Smith. The court-martial is expected to take a week.