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Fort Sill maintains information blackout in wake of child sex abuse charges

After taking command of Fort Sill in May, Maj. Gen. James “Mark” McDonald instituted a series of policies that severely limits public access to information about soldiers accused of crimes.
by Phillip O'Connor Published: January 14, 2013
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Retired Army Col. Richard Rosen, director of the Center for Military Law and Policy at Texas Tech University, said he had never heard of charge sheets being withheld until after a trial's completion.

“Courts-martial are supposed to be public, and that's every part of the proceeding, especially if the crimes extend into the community,'' said Rosen, who served two tours as a staff judge advocate at Fort Hood. “The people in Lawton have a right to know what's going on.”

“I don't know what they're basing it on and what they're afraid of,” Rosen said of the new Fort Sill policy.

“Once you've preferred charges … what privacy is there? The guy is going to go before a public trial.”

McDonald has offered no explanation for the policy change.

Repeated requests to interview McDonald; his chief of staff, Col. Brian Dunn, or the fort's staff judge advocate, Col. Mark Seitsinger, have been declined.

McDonald, who entered service in 1980, most recently served as the commanding general of the U.S. Army Cadet Command and Fort Knox. This is his fifth tour at Fort Sill.

No legal mandate

An Army spokesman at the Pentagon said that as Fort Sill's commanding general, McDonald faced no legal mandate to release the charge sheets.

“This is a command decision,” Maj. Justin Platt said.

“As such, each court martial convening authority has the discretion to release the charge sheets as they see fit.”

Platt said a commander's primary concern in withholding the information is to prevent prejudicing a trial before its start.

Yet, such information is routinely released before military trials, including in high-profile cases such as Pvt. Bradley Manning, who is accused of leaking U.S. secrets to WikiLeaks, Maj. Nidal Hassan, charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood and Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, the 82nd Airborne Division's deputy commanding general who faces sexual misconduct charges in connection with an affair and inappropriate relationships with his subordinates.

Many other military facilities, including Altus and Tinker Air Force bases, also routinely release charge sheets before trial, as did Fort Sill before McDonald's command.

The information blackout extends beyond just the charge sheets.

In Harrod's case, the fort's command staff also did not respond to several post-trial requests for information by The Oklahoman, including the names of the prosecutor and judge and Harrod's age and military occupation.

At an arraignment last month for several soldiers, the fort's public affairs office notified The Oklahoman that neither military prosecutors or defense counsels would be available for interview.

Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School, said McDonald's actions are “precisely the type of thing that could spark significant rethinking of the role of commanders in the administration of justice.”

“Transparency is one of the key factors in maintaining public confidence in the administration of military justice, and orders such as these are utterly incomprehensible given that objective,” Fidell said.

NewsOK.com has disabled the comments for this article.
by Phillip O'Connor
Enterprise Editor
O'Connor joined the Oklahoman staff in June, 2012 after working at The Kansas City Star and St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a combined 28 years. O'Connor, an Oklahoma City resident, is a graduate of Kansas State University. He has written frequently...
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