U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) today welcomed a letter from U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, in which he confirmed that he has ordered the Secretary of the Air Force and the Acting General Counsel of the Defense Department to begin an immediate review of a troubling Air Force sexual assault case, and to report back to him on whether the case should prompt changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The Secretary's letter comes in response to a letter from Senators Boxer and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) last week.
Senator Boxer said, "I am heartened that Secretary Hagel is taking immediate action to review the facts of this troubling case and acknowledges that it is high time to take a hard look at how the military handles sexual assault cases. I believe that we should end the ability of senior commanders to unilaterally overturn a decision or sentence by a military court and from the tenor of his letter, I am hopeful that Secretary Hagel will reach the same conclusion."
Hagel was responding to the Senators' concerns about the case of Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkerson, who was convicted of aggravated sexual assault by a jury of his peers after he allegedly groped a physician assistant as she slept in a guest bedroom of his home last March. Lt Col Wilkerson was sentenced to a year in jail and dismissal from the Air Force after a trial last November. However, in his post-trial review of the case, Third Air Force Commander Lieutenant General Craig Franklin overturned the jury verdict and cleared Wilkerson of all charges, allowing him to be reinstated in the Air Force.
In his letter to the Senators, Secretary Hagel wrote, "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, particularly prior to the robust appellate process made available by the UCMJ."
The Secretary indicated that the review of the Wilkerson case had already begun. "I have directed the Secretary of the Air Force, in coordination with the Acting General Counsel of the Department of Defense, to review this case to assess whether all aspects of the UCMJ were followed, and, after consultation with the Secretaries of the Army and the Navy, to report to me on whether the case points to changes that should be considered in the UCMJ, or in the military services' implementation of the UCMJ and, if so, what changes should be made," he wrote.
Secretary Hagel also committed to working with the Senators on measures to address the epidemic of sexual assault in the military. He wrote, "I am also prepared to work with you as you consider additional legislative options that could help ensure the effectiveness of our responses to the crime of sexual assault."
In their letter last week, the Senators wrote of the Wilkerson case, "This is a travesty of justice. At a time when the military has unequivocally stated that there is zero tolerance for sexual assault, this is not the message it should be sending to our service men and women, and to our nation. As such, we ask that you immediately provide us detailed information regarding the basis for General Franklin's decision, including whether you have the authority to overturn the dismissal of the case. In addition, we urge you, in the strongest possible terms, to take immediate steps to restrict Convening Authorities from unilaterally dismissing military court decisions."
The Senators added, "It is clear that despite sweeping reforms by the Department of Defense to improve prevention, investigation and prosecution of military sexual assaults--including adding specially trained legal personnel and Victim Advocates--these efforts become irrelevant when a case of this magnitude can be thrown out at the discretion of a Convening Authority."