Several senators are expressing outrage at a decision by an Air Force general to overturn a jury’s guilty verdict against a military pilot accused of rape, calling it a “travesty of justice.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said in a hearing Tuesday with the heads of Central Command and Special Operations Command that while she spoke, her heart was racing over the decision, which was announced Monday.
McCaskill said she believed the move would send a chill throughout the Air Force that would force women to stay silent if they are sexually assaulted.
“The military needs to understand that this could be a tipping point,” said McCaskill, a former Jackson County prosecutor and a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I question whether, after this incident, there’s any chance a woman assaulted in that unit would ever say a word. There’s a culture issue that’s going to have to be addressed here. And what this decision did — all it did was underline and put an exclamation point behind the notion that if you are sexually assaulted in the military — good luck.”
At question is the power of the so-called convening authority under the U.S. Military Code of Justice. The term “convening authority” is used in United States military law to refer to a commander’s job, which includes appointing officers to play a role in a court-martial or similar military tribunal or military commission.
McCaskill’s concerns were echoed in a Monday letter from Sens. Barbara Boxer., D-Calif., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-Mo., to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
“Lieutenant General Craig Franklin dismissed a case against Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkerson, despite the fact that the fighter pilot had been found guilty of aggravated sexual assault, sentenced to a year in prison and dismissed from the Air Force,” they wrote. “As we understand, General Franklin has not adequately explained why he chose to overturn a guilty verdict by a jury of high-ranking military officers, allowing Lt Col Wilkerson to be reinstated in the Air Force.”
Air Force News reported that the former Aviano Air Base, Italy, inspector general convicted in November of sexual assault will return to active duty and could pin on his next rank of colonel after an unusual Feb. 26 decision to throw out the case by the commander of the 3rd Air Force.
Over the past three years, the Air Force has identified 62 Air Force recruits at Lackland Air Force Base who have been assaulted by 32 drill instructors. The cases touched off new scrutiny of military culture and an apparently permissive command structure that may have created an environment in which women were hesitant to or coerced not to come forward and report the crimes.
“I think there is a culture issue,” McCaskill said. “I don’t think one general should be able to overturn a jury. ... I have a high degree of frustration.”
Boxer and Shaheen wrote that the decision was unacceptable and “raises serious concerns about the military justice system as a whole.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.