Congress works to stop commanding officers from changing rulings in military sexual assault cases


By Debbie Gregory.

Republicans and Democrats have joined forces to change the military justice system and fight the prevalence of military sexual assault – an offense the military has repeatedly failed to address effectively for decades.

Experts believe the cases of military sexual assault far exceed the 3,192 reported in 2011. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta estimates the real number to be closer to 19,000 assaults, but said few victims report the crime. Over the years, Congress has repeatedly challenged the military to change how it handles military sexual assault cases, but so far, the military has been slow going.

One case may change that.

Last year, Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy, was found guilty of charges of abusive sexual contact, aggravated sexual assault, and three instances of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. The incident involved a female contractor.

Wilkerson was sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the service, but Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the 3rd Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, reviewed the case and overturned the jury’s verdict of guilty. He sent Air Force secretary a six-page letter, explaining that he found Wilkerson and his wife more believable than the alleged victim.

Franklin’s decision to overturn the conviction set off a firestorm of outrage in Congress. At a congressional hearing, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said victims think “no matter what happens at the trial, no matter if they believe me, some general is going to decide I’m a slut.”

Members of Congress now see an opportunity to revise the Uniform Code of Military Justice. They are quickly writing legislation to change the often archaic rules which were first established in 1950. The Armed Services committees are expected to complete the bills in June.

The goal is to remove all decision-making abilities regarding military trials from the chain of command, and would not just be for military sexual assault cases, but for all violent crimes.

Commanding officers would still have authority in cases that would be regarded as misdemeanors in the civilian courts, and convicted military members would retain the right to appeal.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., the new chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee said, “Everyone knows the current system is not working. Everyone knows that 19,000 sexual assaults and rapes a year is unacceptable… It’s not one of those situations where they can say, ‘We got this,’ because they clearly don’t.”

“Each year that we have advanced remedies to try to affect sexual assault in the military, we found something unique and egregious was in the Defense Department system that would re-victimize victims of sexual assault. The case of Gen. Franklin setting aside the sexual assault is absolutely one of those,” said Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio.

Turner is again helping to write the current legislation. His aggressive effort on the issue over the years stems in part from the brutal death of Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, 20, of Vandalia, Ohio, whose charred remains were found in the backyard of the North Carolina home of a former Marine corporal in January 2008.

Lauterbach had accused Cesar Laurean of rape and of being the father of her unborn baby. The two were assigned to the same unit at the Camp Lejeune Marine base. A jury convicted Laurean of murder and he was sentenced to life in prison in August 2010.