Hagel to review Air Force sexual assault case

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 11, 2013 at 7:24 pm •  Published: March 11, 2013
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WASHINGTON (AP) — A case involving an Air Force general who dismissed charges against a lieutenant colonel convicted of sexual assault will be reviewed at the top levels of the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a letter released Monday. But it's seemed unlikely that the ruling would be changed.

Hagel said that under military law, neither he nor the Air Force secretary has the authority to reverse Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin's decision to overturn the conviction against Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy.

Hagel's letter is dated March 7 and was sent to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who released it publicly. The Senate Armed Services Committee is holding a hearing Wednesday on sexual assaults in the military and the Wilkerson case is expected to be a major topic of discussion.

Boxer and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., wrote to Hagel last week asking him to look into the case. They called Franklin's decision to overturn the jury verdict "a travesty of justice." Franklin is commander of the 3rd Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., told Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, in a March 5 letter that Franklin's decision "shows ignorance, at best, and malfeasance, at worst." Franklin's decision undermines efforts by the Air Force and the other military branches "to erase a culture that has often turned a blind eye on sexual assault," McCaskill added.

Shaheen and McCaskill are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Air Force has been grappling for months with the fallout over a sex scandal at its training headquarters in Texas. Dozens of young female recruits and airmen at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio were victimized by their instructors who sexually harassed, improperly touched or raped them.

During January testimony before a House committee, Welsh likened sexual assault in the Air Force's ranks to a cancer and vowed to tackle the problem by screening personnel more carefully and putting an end to bad behaviors like binge drinking that can lead to misconduct.

But Welsh also acknowledged that the Air Force recorded a disturbing number of reports of sexual assault last year even as it worked to curb misconduct. The preliminary figures for 2012 show there were nearly 800 reports of cases, ranging from inappropriate touching to rape, according to Welsh. That would be a nearly 30 percent increase from 2011, when 614 cases were reported. The 2012 figures are being audited and will be included in a report the Defense Department will submit to Congress next month.

In his letter to Boxer, Hagel refers to Franklin as the "convening authority," a term for a commander who is responsible for establishing a court-martial. The Uniform Code of Military Justice gives a convening authority the "sole discretion" to reduce or set aside guilty verdicts and sentences, or to reverse a jury's verdict.

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