But Franklin exercised his discretion and reviewed the case over a three-week period and concluded "that the entire body of evidence was insufficient to meet the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt," Hagel wrote.
Although convening authorities are not required to provide reasons for their decisions, Hagel said he has directed the Pentagon's general counsel and the Air Force secretary to examine Franklin's decision "to determine how the factual basis for the action can be made more transparent."
Hagel also said the Wilkerson case raises the question of whether it is necessary or appropriate "to place the convening authority in the position of having the responsibility to review the findings and sentence of a court-martial," particularly when military law allows for a rigorous appeal process. He said he is ordering the Air Force and other military services to examine that question and determine if changes to military law are necessary.
Boxer said in a statement that she is encouraged by Hagel's response.
"I believe that we should end the ability of senior commanders to unilaterally overturn a decision or sentence by a military court and from the tenor of his letter, I am hopeful that Secretary Hagel will reach the same conclusion," Boxer said.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said she is planning to introduce legislation Tuesday that would strip commanders of the authority to overturn decision or lessen sentences made by courts-martial.
Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School, credited Speier for pushing for change, but warned that it could take months to get a bill through Congress. Among the thorny issues to be resolved are what, if any, role commanders should have in the administration of military justice and how current law should be adjusted to reflect a shift, he said.
"No one should be under any illusions that it can be done overnight," Fidell said.