Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., will begin drafting legislation that would reform military code and reduce military commanders’ ability to dismiss sexual assault cases.
The legislation comes after a jury convicted Air Force Lt. Col. James Wilkerson of sexual assault, but his commander dismissed the charges. Wilkerson’s record was expunged, and he was released from prison and reinstated in the Air Force.
“I have been beyond upset that a general has overturned a jury verdict of sexual assault with the stroke of a pen, without even being required to give a reason,” McCaskill said. “I’m spending a lot of time talking with military leadership about this, and they’re uncomfortable with this authority.”
McCaskill will propose two changes relating to the powers of the “convening authority,” usually a senior military commander, in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The legislation would prohibit commanders from nullifying jury verdicts and would require commanders to provide written reasoning for lessening sentences, according to a news release.
“I want to be careful about the changes we make because we want to recognize that the military justice system is not the civilian justice system,” McCaskill said. “But this is ridiculous.”
The provision that allows commanders to overturn jury verdicts dates back to the days of the draft, when officials may have needed to pull men out of prison to fight, according to the release.
Although the Department of Defense has had a comprehensive sexual assault and prevention policy in place since 2005, the 2011 documentary “Invisible War” sparked a national dialogue after it investigated the military justice system’s handling of sexual assault.
“The (Department of Defense) leadership has paid attention to this important film, and it has served as an invaluable tool to raise awareness of this serious national problem,” said Gary Patton, director of the DOD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.
According to department records, in Fiscal Year 2011 the Pentagon received 3,192 reports of sexual assault. Of these reports, 1,518 were referred for possible disciplinary action. In 2010, the DOD estimated that 14 percent of all sexual assaults were reported, making the estimated total number of sexual assaults more than 19,000.
In its goals for FY2012, the DOD said it hopes to increase the percentage of assaults that are reported and improve response to assault reports.
“The Department of Defense recognizes sexual assault is a terrible crime and more needs to be done in combating it,” Patton said. “We in the military must hold ourselves to a higher standard.”
Patton said senior officials are examining the issue in the military.
“We can turn this around, but it will take time and continued emphasis at all levels,” Patton said. “We have unprecedented senior leader attention right now on sexual assault prevention and response programs across the services.”
McCaskill praised the Air Force for improving its response to sexual assault, but she said the commander's decision, which he made against the advice of legal counsel, diminished these advances.
“He’s supposed to be looking out for the good of the unit,” McCaskill said. “He really set back the Air Force, and it’s just a crying shame.”
In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday, McCaskill said she had dealt with many sexual assault cases as a Jackson County prosecutor.
“(Rape is) a crime of assault,” McCaskill said. “And I believe, based on my years of experience, that the only way that victims of sexual assault in the military are going to feel empowered is when they finally believe that the focus of the military is to get these guys and put them in prison.”