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Preliminary hearing starts in U.S. Naval Academy rape case

By Lacey Johnson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A preliminary hearing for three former U.S. Naval Academy football players charged with raping a drunken female midshipman got under way on Tuesday, the latest in a string of sexual assault allegations in the U.S. military.

The midshipmen - Tra'ves Bush, Eric Graham and Joshua Tate - have been charged with sexually assaulting the woman in April 2012 while she was passed out after drinking too much at an off-campus party.

The so-called Article 32 hearing will determine if a general court-martial is warranted. Navy Commander Robert Monahan, who is presiding over the case at Washington's Navy Yard, is expected to take several days to weigh the evidence.

Academy Superintendent Vice Admiral Michael Miller - after a probe by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service - in June ordered that Bush, Graham and Tate be charged with sexual assault and making false statements.

The investigation was touched off by allegations of an incident at the party in Annapolis, Maryland, site of the elite academy that educates Navy and Marine officers. The woman's attorney, Susan Burke, said in May that her client got drunk and passed out at the party at a "football house."

She woke up with little recollection of what had happened, and later learned that three football players were claiming to have had sexual intercourse with her while she was drunk, Burke said.

Burke said one of the football players pressured the woman not to cooperate with investigators. But when she followed the advice she was "ostracized and retaliated against by the football players and the Naval Academy community."

The woman was also disciplined for drinking. She sought legal help in early 2013 and the Navy reopened the investigation, Burke said.

Reuters generally does not publish the names of sexual assault victims.

The hearing comes after a spate of high-profile military sexual assault cases, including some involving personnel whose job it was to prevent sexual abuse.

An annual Pentagon study this year estimated that unwanted sexual contact in the military, from groping to rape, jumped by 37 percent in 2012 to 26,000 cases.

President Barack Obama told Marines at Camp Pendleton, California, this month that sexual assault undermined the U.S. military. He also spoke at the Naval Academy's graduation ceremony in May and urged the new officers to stamp out sexual assault in their ranks.

The increased number of sex-related incidents in the military prompted members of Congress to introduce legislation to toughen the Pentagon's handling of sex crimes.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and military service chiefs have opposed taking sexual assault prosecution decisions out of the chain of command.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Gunna Dickson)

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