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Appeals court overturns Naval Academy midshipman’s sex assault conviction

A military appeals court has overturned a U.S. Naval Academy midshipman’s 2018 conviction for sexually assaulting another student, ruling that the evidence was “factually insufficient” to warrant a conviction.

Then-Midshipman Mason W. Gilpin was found guilty on Aug. 31, 2018, of sexually assaulting a female midshipman referred to in the appeal ruling as “KS” while she was asleep and unable to consent.

The allegations against Gilpin emerged roughly three weeks after a night of heavy drinking on the part of the accuser and the accused in 2016.

And while the case hinged on differing claims about a drunken encounter between the midshipmen, the three-judge Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals panel wrote on Dec. 30 that the evidence did not sufficiently prove prosecutors’ allegations that Gilpin sexually assaulted KS in her sleep.

“There is simply too much reasonable doubt associated with the evidence in this case,” judge Marine Corps Lt. Col. John J. Stephens wrote for the panel, which included senior judge Navy Cmdr. Angela Tang and judge Cmdr. Michael Lawrence.

“We are not charged with deciding ‘who to believe,’ but simply whether the Government proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Stephens wrote. “It did not.”

In its ruling, the panel suggested a “simpler explanation” for what transpired.

“Two young squad-mates at the Naval Academy, who one Government witness described as ‘close friends’ and ‘friends,’ had been drinking alcohol and made a very poor decision to have sex,” the ruling states.

Gilpin’s civilian defense attorneys, Eric Montalvo and Carol Thompson, declined comment on the ruling and said they were still awaiting word from the Navy as to whether prosecutors would appeal.

Gilpin was sentenced to dismissal and 30 months’ confinement at the Naval brig in Chesapeake, Virginia, at the conclusion of his judge-only court-martial.

Montalvo said Gilpin remains in confinement while the government decides its next steps.

During his court-martial, a military judge acquitted Gilpin of sexually assaulting KS while she was incapable of consenting due to intoxication, “but found him guilty of sexually assaulting her when she was ‘asleep’ and ‘otherwise unaware,’” the panel wrote.

Patricia Babb, a spokeswoman for the Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps, declined to comment as to whether the Navy will appeal the ruling overturning Gilpin’s conviction.

The incident that led KS to accuse Gilpin of sexual assault began on Nov. 19, 2016, when KS was a second-year midshipman drinking with friends at an off-base residence, according to the ruling.

There, she had too much, got sick and left the party before midnight because she had to be back on board the Academy for Taps, Stephens wrote.

“Her privileges were restricted because she had low grades and had failed her physical readiness test,” Stephens wrote. “Just five days earlier, one of her roommates wrote in her journal that MIDN KS told her ‘nothing in her life is going well.’”

Another female midshipman helped KS get back to base and to her room in Bancroft Hall and later described her as “very intoxicated,” according to the ruling.

After getting into bed, KS called her ex-boyfriend back home. They recently had broken off their relationship.

KS also communicated with several other classmates in those early morning hours, according to the ruling.

Like KS, Gilpin was also a second-year midshipman.

They had been assigned to the same company and often the same squad.

Gilpin had been out that night as well and returned to Bancroft Hall sometime before 3 a.m., according to the ruling.

“He was very intoxicated, so much so that another midshipman at the duty desk accompanied him back to his room,” the judge wrote.

Gilpin and KS had been messaging each other and he later said their conversation prompted him go to her room at about 3 a.m.

“For her part, MIDN KS had no memories of the evening from the time she was drinking…until the next morning, except for one thing — she remembers a dream-like snapshot where she saw MIDN Gilpin’s face as she was on top of him in her bed,” Stephens wrote.

“At some point, he got up into her bed,” the judge wrote. “They started kissing and had sex. MIDN Gilpin said he abruptly returned to his room for a condom but never went back to MIDN KS’s room.”

The next day, Gilpin told a mutual friend and classmate of his and KS’s that they had had “a drunken hookup.”

KS texted Gilpin the following morning, according to the ruling.

“Wake your ass up I need to talk to you,” she wrote.

Gilpin went to her room and “both midshipmen were concerned MIDN KS could have gotten pregnant, so MIDN Gilpin offered to purchase Plan B emergency contraception for her,” the judge wrote.

Later that morning, KS called another female midshipman friend.

“According to her friend, MIDN KS was ‘crying’ and ‘hysterical’ and said she woke up in her bed with her pants off and hickeys on her neck,” the ruling states.

That female mid “had previously filed an unrestricted sexual assault report against another midshipman in her company, a fact of which MIDN KS was aware,” the judge wrote.

The accused midshipman had been removed from the female mid’s company “and the chain of command did not pursue any allegations of possible fraternization against her,” the judge wrote. “She testified that she eventually discussed that process with MIDN KS.”

Gossip of the encounter between Gilpin and KS spread across their company in the following weeks.

Both KS and Gilpin told others about what happened, the judge wrote.

“But at this point, MIDN KS did not frame the experience as a sexual assault and no one perceived that she was reporting a sexual assault,” the ruling states. “MIDN KS eventually told her friends that she wanted MIDN Gilpin moved out of the company.”

Later, during a student company Christmas party, Gilpin and KS’s company commander confronted them about a “Dear Santa” note.

“Dear Santa” notes are anonymously submitted, humorous Santa requests made on behalf of other midshipmen.

One note referred to possible fraternization between Gilpin and KS, and asked Santa “to ‘get a room’ for them,” the judge wrote.

The student company commander opted to confront Gilpin and KS separately about the fraternization allegation.

KS was “surprised and upset” and told the commander “’You don’t know the half of it,’ and that she was dealing with the situation.”

The company commander “changed the trajectory of the conversation” and stopped questioning her for fear of forcing her disclosure or limiting her reporting options.

On November 30, Vice Admiral Walter E. “Ted” Carter, the 62nd Superintendent of the United States Naval Academy, signed the I-beam during the topping out ceremony for Hopper Hall. The construction is expected to be complete by September 2020 but a recent audit found many other infrastructure problems on the campus. (Kenneth D. Aston Jr/Navy)
Audit: Naval Academy is falling apart

The Naval Audit Service’s report says the Annapolis, Maryland, college’s infrastructure has degraded to the point of threatening its ability to train midshipmen.

The Dear Santa note was never read at the party and the command did not pursue any disciplinary matters relating to the note, the judge wrote.

About a week later, KS tested positive for chlamydia.

“This upset her,” the judge wrote.

The next day, about three weeks after the drunken encounter, KS texted Gilpin and told him she was planning to file an unrestricted sexual assault report.

“I’m going to give you the heads up now to let you know that you gave me chlamydia,” KS texted Gilpin, according to the appeal ruling.

“But MIDN KS must have gotten chlamydia from someone else, because MIDN Gilpin did not have it,” Judge Stephens wrote.

After KS’s text, a friend of Gilpin’s described him as “shocked” and “confused.”

“What are you blaming me for doing?” Gilpin texted her. “I don’t understand, it was consensual. We joked about doing it again the next morning.”

In reviewing Gilpin’s case, Stephens wrote that the appeal panel had to take “a ‘fresh’ and ‘impartial look at the evidence.’”

“After reviewing the record, including the military judge’s special findings, we are not persuaded the Government proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Stephens wrote.

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