By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Monday he would ask Congress to change U.S. military law to eliminate the power of senior commanders to alter courts martial verdicts for major crimes like murder or sexual assault.
The decision follows a controversial ruling in which a senior military commander in Europe set aside the sexual assault conviction of an Air Force officer, throwing out his one-year prison term and dismissal from the service.
The ruling sparked an outcry in Congress, where the military has faced rising criticism over its failure to deal effectively with the large number of military sexual assault cases. It prompted Hagel to order a one-month review to determine whether a revision to U.S. military law was warranted.
Announcing the results of that review, Hagel said he would ask Congress to revoke the power of military commanders to change a jury's findings of guilt or innocence, but would recommend that they retain the power to alter courts martial sentences.
He said he would recommend military law be changed to require the "convening authority" - the general with the final say over a court martial - to explain in writing any reduction of sentence or change in the verdict in a minor case.
"The intent is to ensure that convening authorities are required to justify - in an open, transparent, and recorded manner - any decision to modify a court martial sentence," Hagel said in a statement.
"These changes, if enacted by Congress, would help ensure that our military justice system works fairly, ensures due process, and is accountable."
Defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said commanders needed to retain the power to reduce sentences handed down by courts martial to be able to engage in plea bargaining, in which defendants cooperate in exchange for a reduced sentence.
They said the authority also was needed so that commanders could ensure that people convicted of the same crimes did not receive wildly varying sentences.
The changes would have implications for virtually all military legal cases, from the trial of al Qaeda suspects at Guantanamo Bay to the prosecution of Private Bradley Manning, who is suspected of releasing secret documents to WikiLeaks.
Critics of the military's handling of sexual assault cases agreed that changes were needed in the court martial process, but some said Hagel had not gone far enough and that sexual assault cases should be removed from the chain of command.
"Today's proposed changes from the Pentagon fall short of the necessary fixes to end the epidemic of sexual assault in the military," said Nancy Parrish, head of Protect Our Defenders, which is pressing the military for action.
Hagel acknowledged that the Pentagon needed to take further steps to address the problem of sexual assault. The Pentagon has estimated that 19,300 military men and women were sexually assaulted in 2010, with only 240 of those cases going to trial.
"It is clear the department still has much more work to do to fully address the problem of sexual assault in the ranks," Hagel said. "This crime is damaging this institution."
Hagel's proposals, if approved by Congress, would tinker with a system that dates back to the Continental Congress - before the adoption of the Constitution - and is now outdated due to creation of a robust appeals process, officials said.
Hagel ordered the review after Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkerson at Aviano Air Base in Italy had his sexual assault conviction overturned by a commander, who threw out his one-year prison sentence and dismissal from the Air Force and returned him to duty.
Lieutenant General Craig Franklin, the officer with final authority in Wilkerson's court martial, reviewed the trial record and concluded that, despite the jury verdict, the evidence was insufficient to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Defense officials said a review of the Wilkerson case found that the Uniform Code of Military Justice had been followed. The Air Force was expected to release further information about that case at a later time, the officials said.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart.; Editing by Christopher Wilson)
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