Hagel orders review of sexual assault cases

Posted at 10:48 AM, Mar 13, 2013
and last updated 2013-03-13 11:00:06-04

WASHINGTON (CNN) – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered two reviews of whether the military justice system is properly dispensing punishments and suitably protecting sexual assault victims, the Pentagon said Tuesday.

The reviews were prompted by outrage from members of Congress over a case involving an Air Force officer found guilty last year in military court of sexual assault who was later cleared of the charges by his top commander.

The judge presiding over the court-martial at Ramstein Air Base in Germany of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson sentenced him to a year in prison and kicked him out of the service.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, Wilkerson’s top commander in Europe, was the convening authority for the court-martial and reviewed the final case and sentence.

Franklin overturned the decision, throwing out the charges and clearing Wilkerson’s military record. He was reinstated in the Air Force earlier this year.

Hagel said Franklin reviewed the case over a three-week period and used his authority under Article 60 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

“He concluded that the entire body of evidence was insufficient to meet the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Hagel said in a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who has been an outspoken critic of Franklin’s decision.

“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 added.

Pentagon officials told CNN last week that is rare for charges to be dismissed in this manner.

U.S. law says the commander’s decision is final and cannot be overturned by the service secretary or the secretary of defense, Hagel told Boxer.

But Hagel said that he would review the legal authorization and ordered Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Pentagon Acting General Counsel Robert Taylor to review the case.

Hagel asked that the review “assess whether all aspects of the (code of military justice) were correctly applied and to make recommendations on how the convening authority’s decision in this case could be more transparent,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters at a briefing.

Little said the report to Hagel is due March 20.

In a second and broader review, Hagel ordered Taylor to examine military law covering the actions of the convening authority and to see whether changes should be made. That assessment is due a week later.

“Eliminating sexual assault in the military is one of his top priorities,” Little said about Hagel’s commitment to members of Congress and military leaders.

“Sexual assault is a serious crime that has no place in the department and he will not tolerate it,” Little added. “Any member of the military that is convicted of sexual assault — no matter his rank or position — must be held appropriately accountable.”

Separately, a bipartisan proposal in the U.S House would strip military commanders of the unilateral power to overturn convictions or lessen sentences handed down by judges and juries at courts-martial.

“It is time to right an egregious wrong in our military justice system. The fact that one person can overturn a punishment determined by a judge or jury flies in the face of justice. We need a military justice system for the 21st century. The one we have now is primitive and is reminiscent of a time when punishments were decided by an autocrat, not by a judge or jury,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat.