Military sexual assault victims need to be treated fairly


By Debbie Gregory.

Top Air Force lawyers are under fire after urging subordinates to rally against a Senate proposal that would overhaul the military’s sexual assault policies.

The Air Force has its own criminal court system. An Air Force Judge Advocate General lawyer assigned to this system typically starts out as a prosecuting attorney to gain experience. Then, as more experience is gained, there are opportunities to move into other areas of criminal law. A JAG lawyer can also serve as a circuit prosecutor or defender, who travels between many Air Force bases trying criminal cases that are felony cases. There is another level above this, appellate attorneys for both the defense and the government, located in Washington, D.C., that handles appeals in criminal cases all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A letter obtained by POLITICO shows Lt. Gen. Richard Harding, the Air Force judge advocate general, and Col. Jeffrey Rockwell, urging their fellow military lawyers to take sides against a Senate amendment expected to come up for a floor vote before Thanksgiving that removes the command chain from major criminal prosecutions.

Col. Rockwell stated his reasons why the current military justice system does the job in rooting out bad actors and defends Pentagon leaders’ stance of “zero tolerance” against sexual assault in the ranks.

“Some outside an organization may view the words as trite, but only words from a commander will truly affect airman behavior,” Rockwell wrote. “‘Because the commander said so’ actually and effectively sets a command expectation, establishes a military duty and reflects a culture that exists nowhere else in society. This is real power with historical success.”

Susan Burke, a Baltimore-based private attorney who has defended several military sexual assault victims asked the Pentagon’s inspector general to launch an investigation regarding the Harding/Rockwell letter.

In June, 2013, military leaders testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that keeping a central role for commanders in prosecuting sexual assault cases was essential.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and her supporters have argued that the current structure has discouraged sexual assault victims from coming forward, given the fact that commanders can overturn guilty verdicts handed down by military juries.

Gillibrand is slowly and steadily building support for a proposal to strip commanders of their authority to prosecute cases of sexual assault, instead handing responsibility to seasoned military lawyers.