WASHINGTON — A California congresswoman has introduced legislation to take the power to dismiss or overturn convictions and sentences away from military commanders — a response to a recent case at Aviano Air Base, Italy.
The bill aims “to right an egregious wrong in our military justice system,” Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said in a press conference Tuesday afternoon. “The military justice system is rigged in favor of the assailant.”
The bill, called the Military Judicial Reform Act, amends articles 60 and 63 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, removing from the convening authority the ability to dismiss, commute, lessen a finding or order a rehearing after a jury or judge has found the accused guilty and delivered a sentence.
Speier said the existing appeal process is sufficient and that giving commanders authority to overturn convictions encourages miscarriages of justice.
Last month, the commander of 3rd Air Force, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, threw out the sexual assault conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, overruled his sentence and reinstated Wilkerson into the Air Force. Wilkerson had been found guilty of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced by jury to a year in jail, forfeiture of all pay and dismissal from the service.
Speier said that under the UCMJ, no one — not even Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel or President Barack Obama — has the authority to overturn Franklin’s decision.
The case “makes a mockery of the Pentagon’s so-called zero-tolerance policy on sexual assault,” said Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, one of the legislation’s co-sponsors.
Hagel has ordered an investigation of the Wilkerson case and a review of the provisions of the UCMJ that allows commanders to override the results of courts martial. Speier said that while she is “delighted” Hagel will review the case, it won’t change the underlying problem.
Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, said her advocacy group frequently hears from commanders and prosecutors who want to do the right thing “but are being thwarted by higher-ups.”
Parrish read a portion of a statement provided by the victim in the Wilkerson case.
“The actions taken by [Franklin] are shocking and disappointing. Why bother to put the investigators, prosecutors, judge, jury and me through this if one person can set justice aside with the swipe of a pen?” Parrish read. “I am 49 years old. I’m pretty together, but if it was this hard on me, what’s in store for a young airman?”
Kirby Dick, director of “The Invisible War,” a documentary about sexual assault in the military, said he was “astonished” by a lack of urgency about the issue in the military and the fact that Pentagon brass don’t seem to understand what victims go through.
“They seem to think they can train their way out of this problem,” he said.
The Senate Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Personnel will hold a hearing about sexual assault on Wednesday.