Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, a three-star general in the Air Force, recently overturned the sexual assault conviction of an F-16 pilot he had previously commanded.
Lt. Col. James Wilkerson was found guilty by an all-male jury of fellow officers of aggravated sexual assault of a 49-year-old physician’s assistant and civilian contractor who was spending the night at his home after a party. The woman had accepted an invitation to stay in the guest room, but woke up to find Wilkerson in her bed.
Wilkerson was sentenced to a year of confinement and was to be expelled from the military.
But under Article 60 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, a commanding officer reviewing a legal case has “absolute power” to disapprove the findings of a military judicial proceeding.
Lt. Gen. Franklin thought the verdict was wrong, so he overturned it.
He said he based his decision on documentation that “painted a consistent picture of a person who adored his wife and 9-year-old son, as well as a picture of a long-serving professional Air Force officer.”
The case smells, but illustrates some of the shortcomings of military justice.
It has also become a rallying point for the cause of reform in the military to stop sexual assaults and make it safe for victims to come forward.
“I was assaulted. I reported it. I endured the public humiliation and the end result is that it was all for nothing,” Wilkerson’s victim said in a statement after the decision.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., hopes to change that. She continues to work toward enacting significant reforms that remove military commanders from the decision-making process when it comes to prosecuting sexual assaults.
Recent statistics reveal the military has a horrific problem on its hands. The Defense Department estimates there may be as many as 26,000 sexual assaults committed each year, and the vast majority are not reported.
CBS News reported of the 3,192 cases of sexual assault reported in 2011 that only 1,516 were “considered actionable” and only about 8 percent of those cases went to trial.
The reason is obvious. Often the person being accused of the crime is in the chain of command, or a friend of a person in the chain of command. One Air Force sergeant told the New York Times she never reported any of the assaults she suffered in her 17 years in uniform because it would be a “career-ender.”
Outrage over the crimes has put pressure on Congress to do something to change the culture.
Sen. Carl Levin, a six-term Democrat from Michigan who is chairman of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, proposed significant policy changes that are backed by the Pentagon’s top officials. But Gillibrand does not feel they go far enough.
Gillibrand is chairwoman of the Armed Services personnel subcommittee and is working on provisions that would strip commanders of their authority to prosecute cases of sexual assault. Instead, seasoned military lawyers would be responsible.
The approach is the only one that would guarantee safety to our military rank and file members. It is long overdue and an approach every member of Congress should support.
The most disturbing thing about Lt. Col. Wilkerson’s case is that it is not unique. There have been many other incidents reported, including episodes at the U.S. Naval Academy and West Point, where midshipmen and cadets are supposed to adhere to a code of honor.
Sen. Levin’s proposal only increases pressure on senior commanders to prosecute sexual assault cases by making them accountable if they fail to do so.
Sen. Gillibrand’s approach offers real change that would be far-reaching and effective in eliminating sexual assaults.
We hear a lot of talk about supporting our military personnel and their mission to protect our country. Sen. Gillibrand’s proposal takes an enormous step toward protecting them.
By the way, Lt. Col. Wilkerson is back on active duty.
Local editorials represent the opinion of The Post-Star editorial board, which consists of Publisher Rick Emanuel, Editor Ken Tingley, Projects Editor Will Doolittle and citizen representative Ted Mirczak.