Victim calls decision in assault case shocking

AP News
Posted: Mar 12, 2013 6:05 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — An advocacy group says the victim in an Air Force sexual assault case is shocked and disappointed by a general's decision to dismiss the charges against the officer found guilty of the crime by a jury and sentenced to a year in prison.

At a Capitol Hill press conference on Tuesday, a representative from Protect Our Defenders read portions of a statement from the woman, whose name was not disclosed to protect her identity. The woman endured eight months of public humiliation and was interrogated for several hours by the officer's lawyers without the benefit of having her own attorney present, according to the statement.

The case has generated significant attention in Congress and is expected to be a major topic during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on sexual assault in the military scheduled for Wednesday. The victim's full statement is to be read at the hearing Wednesday, said Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has told lawmakers he will review the case, but it's unlikely that Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin's decision to overturn the conviction against Lt. Col. James Wilkerson will be reversed. Under military law, a commander such as Franklin who convenes a court-martial has "sole discretion" to reduce or set aside guilty verdicts and sentences, or to reverse a jury's verdict.

In the wake of Franklin's decision, Reps. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, and Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., introduced legislation Tuesday in the House of Representatives that would strip military commanders of the power to overturn legal decisions or lessen sentences handed down by courts-martial judges and juries.

It made no sense to put the investigators, prosecutors, judge, jury and her through a lengthy legal proceeding when Franklin could reverse it with a stroke of his pen, according to the statement that Parrish read. The victim said she is 40 years old and the experience was very difficult for her. But she said she is worried about younger victims, who may be too scared to report when they are sexually assaulted or harassed, the statement said.

Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy, was convicted on Nov. 2 by a military jury on charges of abusive sexual contact, aggravated sexual assault and three instances of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. The victim was a civilian employee. Wilkerson was sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the service.

Wilkerson was at the U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C., until Feb. 26 when Franklin exercised his discretion as the convening authority. Franklin, who is commander of the 3rd Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, 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 in a March 7 letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

Since being released, Wilkerson is on leave, according to Lt. Col. Paul Baldwin, a spokesman for U.S. Air Forces in Europe. After Wilkerson was convicted, his name was removed from a list of candidates eligible for promotion to colonel by Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, Baldwin said. To get his name put back on the list, Wilkerson must apply to an Air Force administrative panel that will review his request, Baldwin said.

The House legislation would amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice to take away the power of a convening authority to dismiss, commute, lessen, or order a rehearing after a panel or judge has found the accused guilty and rendered a punishment, according to a statement from Rep. Speier's office.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, plans to introduce legislation in the next few days that would change the Uniform Code of Military Justice by preventing a convening authority from overturning a decision reached by a jury. The legislation also would require the convening authority to issue a written justification for any action.

Rebekah Havrilla, a former Army sergeant and one of the witnesses scheduled to testify at the Senate hearing, said in an interview with The Associated Press that she was raped by a colleague while serving in Afghanistan. She said the hearing "is a step toward bringing even more awareness" to sexual assault and harassment in the military.

"The biggest thing is that the military criminal justice system is broken when it comes to these cases," she said, "and that's going to take some serious reform efforts and reform work and an aggressive stance from the Department of Defense."


Associated Press writers Sagar Meghani and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.