General Defends Clemency in Sexual Assault Case

Lieutenant General, Craig A. Franklin
Lt. Col. James Wilkerson

By Debbie Gregory.

Lieutenant General, Craig A. Franklin is the controversial commander of the Third Air Force in Europe.  He recently overturned a sexual-assault conviction and approved clemency for defendant and F-16 fighter pilot, Lt. Col. James Wilkerson.  Wilkerson is convicted of “the egregious crime of sexually assaulting a sleeping woman”.  The woman, a female civilian contractor, accused Lt. Col. James Wilkerson of sexually assaulting her after a party at his house. Wilkerson and his wife deny the charges, but say the woman stayed at their house that night.

Franklin dispatched a letter on March 12, 2013, decrying his aspersions to the allegations that he overruled the guilty verdict from an all-male jury, as he doubts the accuser’s credibility. Franklin also described Wilkerson as a “doting father and husband” who has been selected for promotion.

The six-page discourse written by Franklin, explains why he took the unusual step of granting clemency to Wilkerson.  Wilkerson was convicted by a jury on charges of abusive sexual contact, aggravated sexual assault and three instances of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. Wilkerson was sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the service, but Franklin overturned the jury’s verdict and dismissed the charges.

Lawmakers, plus advocacy groups are angry at the decision. Critics say that some commanders are reluctant to hold troops accountable for rapacious sex crimes, despite the escalating rise of sexual abuse cases in the armed forces.

Franklin states in his letter that he understands that it is “exceedingly less volatile for the Air Force and for me professionally” to accept the jury verdict. But after a meticulous review of the case, he says, it “would have been an act of cowardice on my part and a breach of my integrity” to uphold the conviction, as he considers the case against Wilkerson a weak argument.   Franklin believes that Wilkerson is more credible that the victim.

Franklin wrote, “The more evidence that I considered, the more concerned I became about the court martial findings in this case. Accordingly, I could not in good conscience let stand the finding of guilty.”

Franklin is not a judicial judge, nor did he participate or observe the November trial at Aviano Air Base in Italy. However, as the senior officer in Wilkerson’s chain of command, he has the authority, under military law, to overrule the conviction for any reason deemed necessary.

Lawmakers are disgruntled by Franklin’s interference with justice. They say he cannot override a court’s decision, nor substitute his aberration for the jury’s judgment.  The lawmakers question why he gave credence to inadmissible trial evidence.

In response to the fallout over this case, Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel proposes changing military law, so that senior commanders will no longer have the authority to overturn convictions. Commanders may still reduce or eliminate sentences, however, provided they submit a written explanation.

Hagel’s proposal is attracting support on Capitol Hill, thus Franklin’s letter appears to have an effect on the disenfranchised, creating momentum among lawmakers.

In a statement, Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio) and Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), leaders of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, criticize Frankin for “perpetrating the “blame the victim” culture that inhibits effective prevention, and prosecution of sexual assaults in the military.

Military Sexual Trauma is front and center today instead of being kept quiet.  Many female military service members are sharing their trauma to help others.  Tell us your thoughts about General Franklin overturning this verdict.