Fort Sill maintains information blackout in wake of child sex abuse charges

By PHILLIP O'CONNOR | The Oklahoman | Published: January 14, 2013

One of four Fort Sill soldiers accused in the past seven months of sexual misconduct with a child is scheduled for trial Jan. 23.

1st Lt. Michael A. Chambers faces several charges, including sexual contact with a child under the age of 12 and sodomy.

The fort's commander, Maj. Gen. James “Mark” McDonald, declined to comment on the spate of such cases at the state's largest military installation. And continuing a policy McDonald implemented shortly after he took command last year, the post also declined to publicly release any information about the upcoming criminal proceedings.

In July, Sgt. Jason Harrod was convicted on charges including aggravated sexual assault after he impregnated his teenage foster daughter. Harrod was sentenced to 28 years confinement, reduction to the lowest rank and a dishonorable discharge.

Sgt. 1st Class James D. Gallup, is scheduled for trial later this month while the court-martial of Pfc. Christopher P. Havlock is set for March. Both face charges involving victims under the age of 12. Havlock's attorney declined to comment. The attorney representing both Chambers and Gallup did not return several phone calls.

In 2012, only 25 soldiers were court-martialed Army-wide on sexual assault charges involving a victim younger than 12. Three were acquitted.

The number of soldiers tried in civilian courts on similar charges could not immediately be determined. Soldiers convicted of sexual misconduct can be required to register as sex offenders.

After taking command of Fort Sill in May, McDonald instituted a series of policies that severely limits public access to information about soldiers accused of crimes.

In November, citing “firm guidance” from the chain of command, the fort's public affairs office announced it no longer would make “charge sheets” available until after a court-martial's conclusion.

Charge sheets contain basic information about a defendant, such as their name, rank and time in service, as well as some basic facts about the alleged crime.

The new policy is equivalent to a civilian court refusing to provide detailed charges against a defendant until after a trial is completed.

Even then, some of the information, including the names of witnesses, co-conspirators and victims is redacted.

Retired Maj. Gen. John Altenburg, former deputy judge advocate general of the Army, said work is under way at the Pentagon to develop policies governing the public release of charge sheets. Currently, only the Navy has a policy, which calls for charge sheets to be released at arraignment, he said.

“I don't know what the circumstances are at Fort Sill, but I believe generally that transparency in these matters is important for the system,'' said Altenburg, who oversaw more than 1,800 military and civilian attorneys and 3,000 National Guard and Army Reserve attorneys worldwide.

“It's important so that the citizens we represent and the citizens we defend understand how our process works and that it is, in fact, fair and just. I'm proud of the system. It's a good system, and there's no reason to hide it.”

Retired Army Col. Richard Rosen, director of the Center for Military Law and Policy at Texas Tech University, said he had never heard of charge sheets being withheld until after a trial's completion.

“Courts-martial are supposed to be public, and that's every part of the proceeding, especially if the crimes extend into the community,'' said Rosen, who served two tours as a staff judge advocate at Fort Hood. “The people in Lawton have a right to know what's going on.”

“I don't know what they're basing it on and what they're afraid of,” Rosen said of the new Fort Sill policy.

“Once you've preferred charges … what privacy is there? The guy is going to go before a public trial.”

McDonald has offered no explanation for the policy change.

Repeated requests to interview McDonald; his chief of staff, Col. Brian Dunn, or the fort's staff judge advocate, Col. Mark Seitsinger, have been declined.

McDonald, who entered service in 1980, most recently served as the commanding general of the U.S. Army Cadet Command and Fort Knox. This is his fifth tour at Fort Sill.

An Army spokesman at the Pentagon said that as Fort Sill's commanding general, McDonald faced no legal mandate to release the charge sheets.

“This is a command decision,” Maj. Justin Platt said.

“As such, each court martial convening authority has the discretion to release the charge sheets as they see fit.”

Platt said a commander's primary concern in withholding the information is to prevent prejudicing a trial before its start.

Yet, such information is routinely released before military trials, including in high-profile cases such as Pvt. Bradley Manning, who is accused of leaking U.S. secrets to WikiLeaks, Maj. Nidal Hassan, charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood and Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, the 82nd Airborne Division's deputy commanding general who faces sexual misconduct charges in connection with an affair and inappropriate relationships with his subordinates.

Many other military facilities, including Altus and Tinker Air Force bases, also routinely release charge sheets before trial, as did Fort Sill before McDonald's command.

The information blackout extends beyond just the charge sheets.

In Harrod's case, the fort's command staff also did not respond to several post-trial requests for information by The Oklahoman, including the names of the prosecutor and judge and Harrod's age and military occupation.

At an arraignment last month for several soldiers, the fort's public affairs office notified The Oklahoman that neither military prosecutors or defense counsels would be available for interview.

Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School, said McDonald's actions are “precisely the type of thing that could spark significant rethinking of the role of commanders in the administration of justice.”

“Transparency is one of the key factors in maintaining public confidence in the administration of military justice, and orders such as these are utterly incomprehensible given that objective,” Fidell said.



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