WASHINGTON — Three Democratic legislators, spurred by aggressive public questioning by defense attorneys of a woman who alleges she was raped, are asking President Barack Obama to reform part of the military justice system to limit such examinations.
In a letter sent Wednesday, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Rep. Jackie Speier of California told Obama that Article 32 hearings, which determine whether a case should be referred to court-martial, have become a needless ordeal for sexual assault victims.
Fear of what they’ll endure in the hearings, the wrote, could prevent victims from reporting their crimes.
“Military experts have noted that in an Article 32 proceeding, impugning the character of the victim in sexual assault cases has become a standard defense strategy,” they wrote. “This is wrong and it demands immediate remedies — no victim should have to endure such an injustice.”
As reported by The New York Times, a Naval Academy midshipman who accused three of the school’s football players of raping her endured about 30 hours of questioning earlier this month on topics including her technique for oral sex and whether she had apologized to another sex partner for “being a ho.”
It is not the first suggested change to the military justice system to be motivated by the military’s problem with sexual abuse. Speier and other legislators are pushing a change to the Uniform Code of Military Justice that would remove commanders’ authority to decide whether crimes by subordinates should be prosecuted, which they say can result in shielding of perpetrators and intimidation of victims.
Under legislation pending in both houses, such decisions would be moved to military attorneys outside the chain of command – a proposed change that the Pentagon’s top leaders have lined up to oppose.
Eugene Fidell, a military legal scholar who teaches at Yale, said the idea of changing Article 32 hearings is sound, although it remains to be seen what specific changes might result.
An Article 32 is a needlessly complex and lengthy “trial before the trial,” he said. All that’s needed is a brief preliminary hearing, like those in civilian courts, to determine if there’s enough evidence to proceed to trial, he said.
He said current procedures are a “barnacle” on a military justice system that has modernized in other ways, including the use of actual attorneys and trained judges in courts-martial. But more changes are needed, he said.
“People are entitled to a trial, not multiple trials,” he said. “This can be cut way back.”