WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this week reiterated his commitment to stop military sexual assaults as pressure mounted from Capitol Hill and advocacy groups.
Hagel ordered an internal review into a senior Air Force commander's controversial decision to throw out the sexual assault conviction of a fighter pilot and suggested that the review could lead to changes in how the military handles such cases.
Some members of Congress, led by Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., are moving to strip commanders of their authority to overturn the results of courts-martial.
They and others said they were incensed by the case of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a pilot at Aviano Air Base in Italy. Wilkerson was found guilty in November of aggravated sexual assault of a physician assistant who was asleep in a guest bedroom at his home. He was sentenced to one year in military prison.
After reviewing the case, Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin, commander of the 3rd Air Force, dismissed the conviction, freeing Wilkerson and allowing him to be reinstated in the Air Force.
At a Capitol Hill press conference Tuesday, Braley and Speier denounced what they described as a miscarriage of justice. Braley quoted from news accounts that referred to female lawmakers outraged over the case.
“This is one male lawmaker who is outraged ... by the disconnect between the Pentagon's stated commitment to eliminating sexual assault in the military and outcomes like this that turn justice on its head and seem to provide due process only to the accused and their supervising officers,” Braley said.
The Wilkerson case has received attention because it highlights what critics say is one of the biggest problems in how the military system of justice handles sexual assault cases: Senior commanders decide whether criminal charges are brought against military personnel, and even after charges are brought, commanders have the ability to veto court-martial findings.
That means the military justice system lacks the independence of the civilian judicial system. Advocates of changing the military system say the current process makes it less likely that victims will report assaults because they fear retribution and think their assailants might escape punishment.
Several service members have complained about the commanders' control of the legal process.
Last year, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said 3,191 cases of sexual assault in the military were reported in 2011, though the actual number of incidents was believed to be as high as 19,000 because most women do not report the assaults.
Braley and Speier say the authority to set aside the results of courts-martial is unnecessary given the appeals process already in place.
“We have ignored this problem for far too long, and it makes a mockery of the Pentagon's so-called 'zero-tolerance' policy on sexual assault,” Braley said.
Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., had written to Hagel about the case. Boxer released Hagel's response this week.
In his letter, Hagel pointed to comments he made during his confirmation process about his intention to address sexual assaults.
“I am committed to doing everything I can to stop sexual assault in our armed forces,” Hagel wrote. “I have made this issue a priority with all of the services, and the uniformed and civilian Pentagon leadership.”
He told Boxer that Lt. Gen. Franklin had reviewed Wilkerson's case over a three-week period and concluded that the body of evidence was insufficient to meet the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Hagel pointed out that he has no legal authority to reverse Franklin's decision.
Hagel did, however, ask the secretary of the Air Force and Pentagon lawyers to review how Franklin reached his decision. He said the internal review would examine whether the case suggests that changes should be considered to the code or how the code is implemented.
The furor over Wilkerson's case comes as the issue of military sexual assaults has been gaining prominence because of a recent string of scandals. The widest-ranging case involves the Air Force's basic training program at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where 62 trainees were the victims of assault or inappropriate actions by instructors between 2009 and 2012.
Today, a Senate Armed Services subcommittee plans to hold a hearing on sexual assaults in the military, the first Senate hearing on the issue in nearly a decade.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., is a member of the wider Armed Services Committee but not the subcommittee holding today's hearing.
Still, said spokesman Joe Hack, she will be paying attention.
“Sen. Fischer looks forward to reviewing the testimony at the hearing and assessing conclusions from the Pentagon's internal review to address the troubling problem of sexual assault in the military,” he said.
This report contains material from World-Herald press services.
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