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Senators ask Hagel to review overturning of sexual assault conviction

Lt. Col. James Wilkerson speaks as the then 20th Fighter Wing chief of safety at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., Aug. 11, 2008.

Two U.S. senators have asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to review an Air Force general’s decision to overturn the sexual assault conviction of a fighter pilot in his chain of command.

Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., asked Hagel to “immediately review” the decision by Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin to reinstate Lt. Col. James Wilkerson into the Air Force after a jury in November convicted him of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced him to a year in jail and dismissal.

“(W)e ask that you immediately provide us detailed information regarding the basis for General Franklin’s decision, including whether you have the authority to overturn the dismissal of the case,” the senators wrote in a letter to Hagel posted on Boxer’s website. “In addition, we urge you, in the strongest possible terms, to take immediate steps to restrict Convening Authorities from unilaterally dismissing military court decisions.”

Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force based at Ramstein Air Base, and the authority who convened Wilkerson’s court-martial, had concluded in his post-trial review that the evidence did not prove Wilkerson’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, according to a Third Air Force statement.

Wilkerson was released on Feb. 26 from a military jail in Charleston, S.C., according to a Third Air Force spokesman and paperwork was being done to return Wilkerson to “full-duty status.”

The letter to Hagel, dated March 4, is the latest reverberation in the case that has cast a spotlight on the unique discretion military commanders have in deciding outcomes of criminal cases.

Advocates for military sexual assault victims maintain that commander discretion is a flaw in the military justice system, rife with bias and conflict of interest, and discourages victims from reporting and emboldens offenders.

The two senators joined Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California in condemning Franklin’s action. Speier said last week after Franklin’s decision became public that the matter would be the subject of a congressional hearing.

Wilkerson, an F-16 pilot, was the 31st Fighter Wing inspector general when he was accused last March of groping a sleeping houseguest.

“It is clear that despite sweeping reforms by the Department of Defense to improve prevention, investigation and prosecution of military sexual assaults — including adding specially trained legal personnel and Victim Advocates — these efforts become irrelevant when a case of this magnitude can be thrown out at the discretion of a Convening Authority,” the senators wrote.

“This is a travesty of justice,” the letter said. “At a time when the military has unequivocally stated that there is zero tolerance for sexual assault, this is not the message it should be sending to our service men and women, and to our nation.”

montgomery.nancy@stripes.com

 

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