U.S. Coast Guard Academy Cadet Webster Smith, 22, pleaded not guilty Monday to charges of rape, sodomy, extortion and assault in the first student court-martial in school history.
At the academy, where cadets in pressed shirts and gold-buttoned blazers train to become officers, court testimony this week will offer a far less distinguished view of student life: one including sex and drinking to the brink of unconsciousness. Pretrial testimony has centered around a few nights of heavy drinking.
Defense attorney Merle Smith, an academy graduate and former professor, said it’s easy to forget that the service academy is still 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,” said Smith, who is not related to the cadet.
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.
‘Alcohol use ... remains a problem’
“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.
“Alcohol use at the high school level remains a problem,” he continued, “and too many cadets see little problem when they illegally consume alcohol while underage.”
The trial, which is expected to take about a week, will also include undertones of race relations. Smith is black, his accusers are white and defense attorneys suspect the women conspired to bring false accusations against him.
If race wasn’t a factor when six women accused Smith of sexual misconduct, Merle Smith said, it might have been when a seventh woman came forward and the academy added new charges. Most of the sex-related charges have been dismissed.
“There’s no way I could cast myself as Johnny Cochrane and present a member of the administration who had the elements of the Los Angeles police department. It’s not here,” Merle Smith said. “But as this thing has continued to evolve, I guess, as the first 16 charges didn’t appear to be going well, I guess they had to find another eight to see if they could make that case.”
Academy officials have said they will not comment on specific allegations before the trial, which begins Monday and will be open to the public. A jury made up of Coast Guard officers will decide whether to convict Smith.