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New corps of military lawyers help rape victims

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 30, 2014 at 11:19 am •  Published: March 30, 2014
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FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — As an Army general faced court-martial for sexual assault this month, a young military lawyer sat each day in the front row of the gallery, a few feet behind the prosecutors.

Unlike lawyers trying to win a criminal conviction against Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, Capt. Cassie L. Fowler's sole mission was to protect the woman at the center of the case — a young captain who said her commander twice forced her to perform oral sex and threatened to kill her if she told anyone about their three-year affair.

Known as a Special Victims Counsel, or SVC for short, Fowler is part of a program started by the Pentagon last year following longstanding complaints that the military has too often treated those reporting rapes and sexual assaults as if they were the ones who did something wrong.

By providing independent attorneys, the military hopes the SCVs will help support victims become more resilient and navigate them through complex procedures within military justice system.

In the months since the program was expanded to all military branches, the new corps of about 200 hand-picked and specially trained lawyers has represented hundreds of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen as their alleged abusers were investigated, tried and, in some cases, convicted.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army's top commander, has met with some of the sexual assault victims.

"Here's the message I'm getting from them, 'the best thing we've done is the victim advocates,'" Odierno said earlier this month. "It's clear to me that the victims are feeling much more comfortable with these special victim advocates, and I'm dedicated to ensuring we carry out this program within the Army."

Among the early successes: An Air Force SVC representing a female airman successfully fought to remove a mark from the woman's service record placed there in retaliation for reporting her sexual assault. In another case, an SVC informed a commander that an officer overseeing an evidentiary hearing had acted improperly in recommending dismissing charges against the accused. The commander overruled the officer and sent the case to court-martial.

The counsels have had to fight for acceptance in a military justice system that can be slow to accept change. SVCs have reported threats of retaliation when challenging decisions or conduct of a higher-ranking officer. Internal emails released as part of the Sinclair case show senior Army lawyers privately ridiculed the SVC assigned to the accuser.

At issue was a letter Fowler sent in December that helped convince the top general at Fort Bragg to reject a plea deal that would have dropped the sexual assault charges against Sinclair. Fowler suggested that to do otherwise would "have an adverse effect on my client and the Army's fight against sexual assault."

Col. Michael Lacey, the senior military lawyer at Fort Bragg, emailed a subordinate that he didn't like Fowler. The other Army lawyer then replied that Fowler was "very preachy."

"Exactly and I don't worship her god," Lacey responded.

Military court watchers said Fowler's letter stated the obvious — that the resolution of the case against the highest ranking officer ever charged with sexual assault will be closely watched. However, the judge overseeing the case later cited the letter as evidence the commander had been improperly influenced by the potential political fallout if he had agreed to dismiss the charges.

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