Mayport captain leads Navy's new legal team to represent sex-assault victims
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III and the Judge Advocate General, Lt. Gen. Richard Harding, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 4, 2013, in Washington, D.C., with chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other branch service chiefs on the problem of sexual assault in the military.
The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union
A new unit that became fully operational Jan. 1 is part of the Navy’s response to an increase in reported sexual assaults in the armed forces.
After congressional hearings where military leaders were called to the carpet and lambasted, Congress included new guidelines for how the military handles sexual assault cases in the Pentagon’s 2014 budget.
In August, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel mandated that all services create a victims legal counsel program.
For the Navy, the head of that program, the Victims Legal Counsel, or VLC, is at Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville, Fla.
“The victims legal counsels do not work for the prosecutor and they do not work for the defense. They are there solely to represent the victim,” according to Capt. Karen Fischer-Anderson, chief of staff for VLC.
Fischer-Anderson, a 26-year veteran attorney with experience in prosecution and defense, was assigned to set up and oversee the program consisting of herself and 29 other Judge Advocate General officers. VLC provides legal counsel to any sexual assault victim in the Navy who requests their help.
It’s a tall order.
More than 5,000 sexual assaults were reported in the military in 2013, up 50 percent from the previous year — something some military leaders have pointed to as increased willingness by victims to come forward. Whatever the cause, Fischer-Anderson and her staff of 29 will undoubtedly be stretched thin.
“Because we had to be up and running very quickly, we turned to our reserves and have 11 reservists as part of the original 29,” she said. “Business is booming.”
Most victims initially report a sexual assault through a chaplain, a health care provider or a victims advocate inside their unit and are then told of the VLC program.
“When someone walks through our door for the first time, the first thing we do is establish the confidentiality — we’re an independent chain of command,” she said. “Then we let them tell us what they want us to do for them.”
Sometimes that means making an alleged victim aware that they may be subject to prosecution as well if they decide to move forward.
If alcohol was involved, the accuser could be subject to an underage drinking charge. If the alleged assault took place within the context of an inappropriate or extramarital relationship, fraternization or adultery charges can follow under military law.
If the victim decides to go through with a report and press charges, the counselors can sit in on interviews and trials and help guide them through the process.
However, some whose job it is to defend the accused wonder what effect the new emphasis on prosecutions will have on defendants.
“Right now, there’s a microscope on sexual assault, particularly in the military,” according to Joseph Jordan, a civilian Uniform Code of Military Justice attorney. “What we see on the military side of the house is that you’re seeing cases being prosecuted that a district attorney in a college town would throw in the waste can because there’s no evidence.”
In addition, Jordan questions whether the deck is now stacked against the accused. One of the new provisions in the budget overhauls the military’s Article 32 hearings, which determine whether there is enough evidence to move to a court-martial by limiting extensive questioning of the accuser.
“Now the alleged victim gets their own attorney, their special victims counsel who can advise them, who have standing in the courts martial that can actually come forth and argue motions and issues,” he said.
“Now you’ve got three different counsels who can come into a court-martial to discuss this case, and one of them is the shield of the alleged victim who prevents you from talking to this individual in an interview or preliminary [Article 32] hearing, so the only crack you might get is at the court-martial itself.”
Fischer-Anderson said the VLC represents a leveling of the playing field.
“Before, the [prosecution] was never expected to represent the victim. They represent the United States,” she said. “We are the counsel for the victim. So therein lies the difference.”