After a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in which U.S. Senator McCaskill called into question the authority of commanders to dismiss jury convictions against sex offenders, she announced today that she is proposing legislation that curtails that authority, while also imposing new requirements that strengthen accountability in the Uniform Code of Military Justice - the legal code followed by the military. Yesterday afternoon, McCaskill met one-on-one with Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh to discuss her ongoing efforts to address sexual assaults in the military.
"Giving military commanders with no legal experience the ability to completely nullify a jury's verdict without even requiring justification is against everything that we believe about justice in this country," said McCaskill, a former Jackson County Prosecutor and a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I hope this bill starts a bigger discussion of how sexual assault cases are being handled by the military and how we can ensure that offenders are being held accountbale."
McCaskill's legislation would make two reforms to the Uniform Code of Military Justice related to the authorities given to the "Convening Authority" in a military Courts Martial, a role usually filled by a senior military commander. First, it would prohibit a commander's ability to vacate or nullify a jury verdict. Second, it would require a commander to provide written justification for any decision commuting or lessening a sentence following a guilty verdict in a Court Martial. Current regulations allow the Convening Authority to nullify a jury verdict "for any reason, or no reason at all."
In a recent case, Air Force Lt. Col. James Wilkerson was convicted of sexual assault, and sentenced to a year in prison following a military trial. 3rd Air Force commander Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, reportedly against the advice of legal counsel, used his command authority to dismiss the charges against Wilkerson, which led Wilkerson to be released, and his record expunged of any wrongdoing. This set the stage for Wilkerson's immediate reinstatement and eligibility for promotion.
In a letter last week to the two highest officials in the Air Force, McCaskill called for the actions of the General to be reviewed and for disciplinary measures to be considered. McCaskill also discussed her concerns about Lt. Gen. Franklin's actions with Gen. Welsh during her meeting today.
McCaskill has been a leader on sexual assault prevention in the military-recently backing legislation aimed at improving the Department of Veterans Affairs' process for evaluating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) disability claims by military veterans. She has previously taken action to respond to reports of sexual assault occurring at Fort Leonard Wood that were detailed in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch investigation.
McCaskill also included provisions in the 2012 and 2013 National Defense Authorization Acts designed to improve the military's response to sexual assault and encourage the services to adopt training for sexual assault investigators developed at the Army's Military Police School at Fort Leonard Wood.