March 13 (Bloomberg) -- A senator said she’ll offer legislation to strip U.S. military commanders of power to overturn court-martial convictions in sexual-assault cases.
“Giving military commanders with no legal experience the ability to completely nullify a jury’s verdict without even requiring justification is against everything that we believe about justice in this country,” Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said today in a statement.
The move was a response to 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 Air Force Lieutenant General Craig Franklin, the so-called convening authority in the case.
The case has added to debate about whether the military does enough to protect personnel from sexual assaults and acts forcefully enough when it prosecutes wrongdoing. McCaskill serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which held a hearing on the subject today where victims testified.
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.
In the Aviano case, 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.
“It looks to me like he is protecting one of his own,” Kimberly Hanks, who identified herself as the victim of the attack, said in an interview on NBC’s “Today Show.” She said the message to other women who have been sexually assaulted in the military is “it’s not worth it. Don’t bother.”
Wilkerson’s lawyer, Frank Spinner, told NBC that lawmakers were engaged in “political grandstanding” and that he hoped others would “recognize that some women make false claims of sexual abuse.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a letter to lawmakers this week that the Pentagon will review whether U.S. military commanders should continue to have the power to overturn such convictions.
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 a letter to senators released March 11. 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.
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.
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