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General's Dismissal Of Sex Assault Conviction Sparks Anger, Review Of System

The Pentagon. New Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wants a review of how sexual assault cases are adjudicated by the military.
Jason Reed
Reuters /Landov
The Pentagon. New Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wants a review of how sexual assault cases are adjudicated by the military.

An Air Force general's decision to dismiss the charges against a lieutenant colonel who was convicted of sexual assault has outraged many members of Congress and led new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to say he's ordered a review of the case.

And, Hagel says in a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., he has asked the secretaries of the Army and Navy "to report to me on whether the case points to changes that should be considered in the [Uniform Code of Military Justice], or in the military services' implementation of the UCMJ."

The case, how it has been handled and the laws that govern such proceedings are expected to come up Wednesday when the Senate Armed Services Committee convenes a hearing on "sexual assaults in the military."

Particularly at issue is whether the "convening authority" — in this case Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin — should have the right to overturn such a conviction. A military panel had convicted Lt. Col. James Wilkerson of sexual assault on a civilian employee and sentenced him to a year in prison and dismissal from the Air Force.

Franklin reviewed the case and determined that "the entire body of evidence was insufficient to meet the burden of proof," Hagel wrote to Boxer. Under the uniform code, Hagel added, "the decision of the convening authority [Franklin] cannot be changed, either by the Secretary of the Air Force or by the Secretary of Defense."

Not only has Hagel asked whether changes should be made to the code of military justice, he also wrote Boxer that he has told the Pentagon's acting general counsel to ensure that the role of convening authorities in sexual assault cases is reviewed by an independent panel that is investigating how cases of sexual assault are handled.

After word emerged that Wilkerson's conviction had been overturned, The Associated Press writes:

"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."

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.