ShareThis Page

Army's top sex-assault prosecutor reprimanded for encounter with officer

| Friday, July 18, 2014, 8:36 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The Army has issued a formal reprimand for misconduct to its former top sex-crimes prosecutor as a result of a complaint that he kissed and groped a female officer while attending a conference on sexual-assault prevention, according to Army officials.

Lt. Col. Joseph “Jay” Morse received the reprimand in late June, four months after the Army received the complaint and suspended him from his job as supervisor of the Army's special victim prosecutors, officials said.

The Army didn't disclose the outcome of the investigation until Thursday, when it confirmed the reprimand in response to queries from The Washington Post. Lt. Col. Alayne Conway, an Army spokeswoman at the Pentagon, said in a statement that Morse was subjected to “appropriate disciplinary action” but did not provide details.

The female captain filed a complaint against Morse in February. She alleged that he groped and kissed her three years ago in a hotel room in Alexandria, Va. Both officers were attending a legal conference on sex crimes.

The Army conducted an investigation, but officials in charge of the case concluded that they lacked evidence to file criminal charges.

Army officials said Morse has served notice that he plans to retire. Until then, he has been temporarily assigned to duty at the Pentagon, where he serves in the office of the Army's judge advocate general. Morse did not respond to emails or a request for comment placed through the Army's public affairs office.

Morse acknowledged an intimate encounter with the woman but said he did not touch her without her consent, according to a sworn statement he gave to investigators.

One of his defense attorneys, Lt. Col. Warren Wells, said that Morse “denies and has consistently denied any non-consensual conduct.” He said that Morse passed a polygraph test and that the results were shared with investigators.

The case made headlines in March shortly after the Army began its investigation. The military has been grappling with a spike in reports of sexual assaults in the ranks and a number of embarrassing incidents that have cast doubt on its ability to address the problem.

Last year, the head of the Air Force's sexual-assault prevention branch was arrested on charges that he grabbed a woman's buttocks outside a Northern Virginia bar. He was later acquitted. Since then, the armed forces have reassigned several hundred recruiters and sexual-assault counselors after finding that they were unqualified for their positions.

Advocacy groups and many members of Congress are pushing for an overhaul of the military justice system, something that the Joint Chiefs of Staff have vigorously resisted. President Barack Obama has said he will give the Pentagon until the end of the year to demonstrate progress in its handling of sexual-assault cases and then might support such changes.

Army officials declined to elaborate on the specific type of misconduct for which Morse was reprimanded. Under military law, commissioned personnel can be disciplined for a wide range of behavior under the rubric of “conduct unbecoming an officer.”

Morse received the reprimand from Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, commander of the Military District of Washington, Army officials said. Morse has been relieved from his position as chief of the Trial Counsel Assistance Program at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where he oversaw about two dozen prosecutors who specialize in sex crimes and domestic violence. The office also provides training to Army prosecutors around the world.

Until the complaint was filed, Morse had enjoyed a stellar legal career in the Army. In 2012, he was appointed lead prosecutor for the worst war-crimes case to arise from the war in Afghanistan: the killing of 16 Afghan villagers by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The Army's handling of the complaint against Morse caused some consternation in legal circles.

In April, as the criminal investigation was unfolding, Morse received a highly unusual written order from an Army commander instructing him and his attorneys not to speak to any potential witnesses, effectively hamstringing them in preparing a defense.

According to court records filed by Morse's attorneys, the order was prompted by a complaint from Morse's accuser, who was upset that the defense team had interviewed potential witnesses — a routine procedure in such cases.

Morse's lawyers filed objections to the order with the Army's Court of Criminal Appeals, arguing that it violated his constitutional rights to defend himself. The Army withdrew the order shortly afterward.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.