The Air Force general whose decision last year to dismiss a sexual assault conviction led Congress to significantly curb commander authority in the military justice system announced Wednesday that he is retiring so as not to be a further “distraction” for the Air Force.
“In the last 10 months as the Commander of Third Air Force and 17th Expeditionary Air Force, my judgment has been questioned publicly regarding my decisions as a general court martial convening authority,” Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin said in a statement. “This is a distraction for the Air Force and for my role as a general court martial convening authority.”
The announcement came three weeks after Stars and Stripes reported that Air Force officials had taken the unusual step of removing a sexual assault case at Aviano Air Base from Franklin’s purview.
His retirement was hailed by longtime critics of the general.
“Lt. Gen. Franklin’s decision… is the right one,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. “His handling of sexual assault cases is the best possible illustration of why civilian review, elimination of commanders’ ability to overturn convictions, and so many other protections are included in our recent defense bill.”
For nearly a year, Franklin has been a lightning rod in the debate about military sexual assault and how best to address it, ever since he, in February, dismissed a court-martial jury’s sexual assault conviction of then-Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, sprung the Aviano-based fighter pilot from jail and re-instated him into the Air Force.
That action was allowed under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Franklin said later he made the decision based on his belief from a review of the case that Wilkerson was a fine officer and doting husband and father who would not commit sexual assault. He said that the accuser, a civilian physician assistant who’d met Wilkerson only that night and stayed at his house after a party was less credible and said he questioned why she had not accepted a ride home instead of staying over.
Outrage over that case has dogged Franklin since.
“The last thing I want in this command, is for people to feel they cannot bring a sexual assault case forward or feel it won’t be dealt with fairly,” he said in his statement. “In addition, public scrutiny will likely occur on every subsequent case I deal with. I am concerned this could jeopardize the privacy of both the victim and the accused.
“Therefore, for the good of this command and the Air Force, I plan to retire," he said.
His last day on the job is Jan. 31, his statement said.
Franklin’s actions have enraged victims’ advocates and a number of U.S. senators, who said it illustrated the bias military sexual assault victims face even at the highest command levels. McCaskill, a former prosecutor and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, suggested then that Franklin be fired, along with Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for military sexual assault victims.
But Franklin, with nearly 33 years in the service, also had powerful defenders, among them Gen. Philip Breedlove, then commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and thus Franklin’s boss, who now is the top U.S. commander in Europe. Emails released under the Freedom of Information Act last summer showed that Breedlove wholeheartedly backed Franklin’s decision, saying in an email to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III he “stood by” Franklin’s decision.
In a statement Wednesday, Welsh said of Franklin’s decision to retire: “I fully respect his decision and the difficult circumstances under which he made it.”
Protect Our Defenders welcomed the news of Franklin’s retirement.
“Military leadership supported Franklin for far too long,” said Nancy Parrish, president of the victims’ advocacy group, in a statement Wednesday. “While he should have been removed a year ago, it is good to hear that they finally have done the right thing.”
Since the Wilkerson case, Congress has stripped commanders of their authority to overturn jury verdicts and curtailed other largely unfettered powers. Last year, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced legislation to completely remove commanders from deciding whether cases should move to court-martial, giving that authority to military prosecutors. The legislation failed but had wide bipartisan support and was expected to be voted on again this year.
Franklin, an F-16 pilot who graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1981, took command of the Third Air Force in March 2012.
At the change of command ceremony then, Welsh, who at the time was USAFE commander, praised Franklin. “We are very lucky to have him,” Welsh said. “We got a commander who on 13 of his performance reports, the evaluator said he was the best officer they had ever seen.”
In a March 2013 court-martial hearing where he was questioned about his impartiality as a convening authority in light of the controversy surrounding his decision on Wilkerson, Franklin said he remained untroubled and was “sleeping like a baby.” He also said he knew his decision might affect his career.
“I mean I thought about it, but I can’t take it into account because I’ve got to do the right thing, and I am a man of integrity,” Franklin said during that hearing, according to hearing transcripts. “And in every case, I’m going to make the right call based on the facts and based on what I see, regardless of any impacts to me. Regardless of any impacts to the Air Force.”
Franklin declined to comment on whether his thinking had changed after the Air Force confirmed that Wilkerson, 45, had engaged in an adulterous affair that produced a child some years earlier, and appeared to have used his F-16 and a temporary duty assignment to facilitate the affair.
Wilkerson was also forced to retire, effective Jan. 1, and was reduced in rank to major.
Kim Hanks, the woman Wilkerson had been convicted of assaulting at the November 2012 Aviano court-martial, said she took little pleasure in Franklin’s retirement — although she said it was deserved and overdue.
“I don’t like watching him crash and burn, even if he deserves it,” Hanks, who went public last year, said in an email.
“I couldn’t believe Franklin was allowed to continue his position, especially after news broke about Wilkerson lying about his fidelity,” she added.
Air Force officials said last month that they had moved the more recent sexual assault case from Aviano to the Air Force District of Washington after Franklin decided against proceeding with the case because officials were concerned about the fairness of the Article 32 hearing.
Those concerns were brought to light by the accuser’s special victims’ counsel in a memo that Franklin, as well as three military lawyers who backed his decision, was aware of. Franklin was also criticized for not meeting with the accuser, despite her request, before making his decision.
Following Stars and Stripes’ story, both McCaskill and Gillibrand called for Franklin to be fired.
“It is clear that Lt. General Franklin should not be allowed to fulfill the responsibilities of military command because he has repeatedly shown he lacks sound judgment and respect for the responsibilities held by military commanders to protect those under their authority,” McCaskill said.