March 12 (Bloomberg) -- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Pentagon will review whether U.S. military commanders should continue to have the power to overturn a conviction by court-martial in sexual-assault cases.
The move came in response to U.S. lawmakers’ protests over a case at Aviano Air Base in Italy, where a conviction of aggravated sexual assault reached in a court-martial last year was overturned by the so-called convening authority, Air Force Lieutenant General Craig Franklin.
Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkerson was convicted by a military jury last year after he allegedly groped a physician’s assistant as she slept in a guest bedroom at his home. Franklin, who convened the court-martial as commander of the Third Air Force, dismissed the case last month, calling the evidence insufficient.
“I believe this case does raise a significant question whether it is necessary or appropriate to place the convening authority in the position of having the responsibility to review the findings and sentence of a court-martial,” Hagel wrote in a letter to senators released yesterday.
The overturning of the conviction added to debate about how effectively the military acts to protect personnel from sexual assaults and how forcefully it prosecutes wrongdoing. The Defense Department has estimated there are about 19,000 sexual assaults a year in the military, based on anonymous surveys of the active-duty force, although the number of reported cases is smaller. There were 3,192 reported assaults in 2011.
Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said she plans to introduce a bill today to strip military commanders of the power to overturn verdicts or sentences issued by judges and juries at courts-martial.
“There is no justice in a military system that allows a general to overturn the decision of a judge or jury in a court martial,” Speier said in an e-mailed statement. “Generals are not above the law.”
Hagel directed the secretary of the Air Force and the Pentagon’s acting general counsel to review the Aviano case to determine whether changes should be made to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, he said in his letter. The role of the convening authority also will be reviewed by an independent panel that will examine the prosecution of sexual assault crimes, he said.
Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer of California and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who had asked Hagel to review the case at Aviano, said they were encouraged by his response.
“I am heartened that Secretary Hagel is taking immediate action to review the facts of this troubling case and acknowledge that it is high time to take a hard look at how the military handles sexual assault cases,” Boxer said in a statement. “I believe that we should end the ability of senior commanders to unilaterally overturn a decision or sentence by a military court and from the tenor of his letter, I am hopeful that Secretary Hagel will reach the same conclusion.”
Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the decision of the convening authority is final and can’t be changed by the secretary of defense, Hagel said in his letter.
In the Aviano case, Hagel said Franklin “concluded that the entire body of evidence was insufficient to meet the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Wilkerson, a former inspector general of the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano, was found guilty in November of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to a year in jail, forfeiture of all pay and dismissal from the Air Force. Franklin overturned the verdict last month.
The Air Force was rocked by a sexual-assault scandal last year at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, which provides training to all Air Force recruits. At least five military instructors have been convicted of sexual assaults or unprofessional relationships with trainees or students. An investigation identified 23 alleged offenders and 48 alleged victims, according to a report by the Air Education and Training Command.
The Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on sexual assaults in the military tomorrow.
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