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The Philadelphia Inquirer - End Court-Martial Loophole


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By Patrick Meehan

Imagine yourself a victim of sexual assault. After finally summoning the courage to speak out and report your attacker to authorities, you're forced to relive the attack through months of depositions, testimony, and questioning by defense attorneys hoping to discredit you.

Next, a jury returns a guilty verdict against your attacker.

But then, weeks later, that verdict is suddenly and irreversibly overturned, without any justification or rationale. Your attacker is set free, and you're not even told why.

That's exactly what happened to an American woman working in Italy.

She had been at the home of Air Force Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, near Aviano Air Base, in Italy. Wilkerson served with the 31st Fighter Wing, based at Aviano. The Wilkersons had a small party that evening and, afterward, the victim, a 39-year-old civilian physician's assistant, was invited by Wilkerson and his wife to spend the night in a guest room. She later alleged that, as she slept, Wilkerson sexually assaulted her.

Months later, a military court martial convicted him of aggravated sexual assault, abusive sexual contact, and conduct unbecoming of an officer. Wilkerson was sentenced to one year in prison and dismissal from the Air Force.

But less than a month after the sentencing, Wilkerson's conviction was thrown out. Under a little-known provision of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the senior officer who convenes a court martial - the "convening authority" in legal parlance - may dismiss its verdict without any justification or explanation. In this case, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the U.S. Third Air Force in Europe, vacated Wilkerson's conviction, released him from confinement, and reinstated him to active duty.

Franklin has no legal background and he acted against the advice of his legal counsel. His decision is absolutely final and may not be appealed or overturned - not even by the secretary of defense or the president.

It's clear that justice was not done. Our military justice system includes a vigorous appeals process that protects the rights of the accused and ensures defendants receive a fair, impartial trial and a just sentence. This process should have been allowed to run its course. To instead allow a military officer with no legal training to unilaterally dismiss the verdict of a jury with no recourse is a travesty of justice.

This isn't the first time a convening authority has lessened the outcome of a court-martial: In 2011, a senior Air Force officer was convicted of sexual misconduct and sentenced to 20 months in jail, only to have the convening authority reduce his sentence drastically. In 2007, a convening authority reduced the sentence for an airman convicted of indecent acts with a child.

Cases like these leave victims feeling robbed of justice. But they also send a chilling message to future victims of military sexual assault, who already must weigh their desire for closure against the pain of months of attacks on their character.

In the words of Wilkerson's alleged victim, that message is: "Don't bother. It's not worth it."

After reviewing this issue, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that he would ask Congress to end this court-martial provision. In response, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D., Calif.) and I recently introduced H.R. 1079, the Military Judicial Reform Act. This legislation would end the ability of commanders to unilaterally vacate the rulings of courts martial. It would return the decision-making about the fairness and propriety of a trial to where it belongs: the appellate process.

Granting a single commander the ability to overturn decisions that were made by a jury of a defendant's peers is unfair, unnecessary, and unjust. It's an archaic practice and it should end.

U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan (R., Pa.) represents the Seventh Congressional District, which includes most of Delaware County and parts of Chester, Montgomery, Berks, and Lancaster Counties.

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