Military Commanders Have Already Failed Assault Victims — Why Trust Them Again?

Our service men and women deserve a professional and unbiased justice system equal the system afforded to the civilians they protect.

For months, critics of fundamental reform have argued that commanders will be more protective of victims than military prosecutors.

The Pentagon’s own numbers show commanders are too often biased and conflicted in sexual assault cases. They regularly testify on behalf of the accused’s “good military character” at trial and write letters in support of overturning convictions or reducing sentencing during the clemency phase. As long as commanders hold the authority to prosecute and adjudicate these cases, service members who are victims of these crimes will too often be denied justice.

Each of the three recent examples summarized below clearly illustrates the severity of failures of our broken and corrupt military justice system, and shows dozens of commanders consistently siding with the perpetrators of these attacks, and blaming the victim.

Aviano Air Base

A jury of five colonels at Aviano Air Base, Italy, convicted Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkerson, of sexual assault. In February 2013 the Convening Authority, Lieutenant General Craig Franklin, Commander of the 3rd Air Force and 17th Expeditionary Air Force, set aside that conviction.

During the trial, three current or former commanders testified as to Wilkerson’s good military character. Many others wrote affidavits touting his good military character as well. Over thirty current or former commanders wrote letters supporting overturning his conviction through clemency. Many of these letters from commanders attacked the prosecution, the court members, and the judge. Wilkerson’s immediate commander, Colonel David Walker refused to prefer charges and prosecutors had to find another way. This is not uncommon. And, as has been well publicized, in February 2013, the case was dismissed by Franklin, who as the Convening Authority selected the jury pool. Franklin went as far as to criticize the court members (jury) in an email to Chief of Staff General Welsh and his immediate superior Lt. General Phillip Breedlove, commander of the Third Air Force in Europe. He also criticized the prosecution in a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force Donnelly. Gen. Breedlove then defended Franklin and criticized the prosecution and court before 500 majors, rising commanders in March 2013.

Vandenberg Air Force Base

Captain Matthew Herrera was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced. His group commander testified to his character for truthfulness at trial. On Feb. 9, 2012, Lieutenant General Susan Helms, the 14th Air Force Commander relied on this for determining Herrera was telling the truth when she overturned the verdict. Helms reviewed 412 evidence, which the judge had ruled inadmissible. Helms again showed she had no faith in the members she selected or in the process.

Both Generals Helms and Franklin demonstrated they did not understand their duties as a Convening Authority. Both claimed they had to be personally convinced of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This is false. Article 60 does not require them to act on the findings of the court. Air Force Instruction 51-201 specifically states: the convening authority is not required to take any action on the findings, to review the case for legal errors, or to review the case for factual sufficiency. By their actions, Helms and Franklin showed their utter lack of faith in a system they demand to keep. Their disingenuous claims of a duty to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt shows bias or a complete ignorance of the system or a complete lack of faith in the process.

Scott Air Force Base

Chief Master Sergeant William Gurney was convicted of multiple offenses including the sexual maltreatment of subordinates. He was sentenced to two years confinement and a Dishonorable Discharge. The Convening Authority, Lieutenant General Robert Allardice, 18th Air Force Commander on April 20, 2011 reduced his sentence to four months confinement and a bad conduct discharge. At sentencing and in clemency he received support from a total of nine former or current commanders, including a four star general and a three star general. These letters were extremely critical of the sentence and process. Five of these letters were from current or former Convening Authorities.

Each of these cases clearly illustrates that commanders trust their own biased point of view over that of the judge and jury who actually sit through the trials, listen to the witness and are in the best position to evaluate the facts and who is telling the truth. They evidently do not trust or value the expertise of the prosecution, military judges, and even the court members (jurors) they nominate. Yet, somehow our military justice system is currently structured so that they have the authority to stop or overturn the process at each stage from beginning to end.

The process must be amended to allow the investigation, prosecution, and adjudication to be conducted by independent, trained, and experienced professionals, all outside of the suspect’s conflicted and often biased chain of command.

Nancy Parrish is the president of Protect Our Defenders, which gives voice to the brave women and men in uniform who have been raped or sexually assaulted by fellow service members.

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