McCaskill, Blunt seek to reform military sexual assault proceeding law

Supporters for the reform believe Article 32 to be biased against the victims of sexual assault.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., voices her support of the Violence Against Women Act at a Feb. 15, 2013, press conference at the Boone County Courthouse. The act was signed into law by President Barack Obama on March 7, 2013. Maneater File Photo

Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., introduced new bipartisan legislation that seeks to reform current code for sexual assault proceedings in the U.S. military.

The Article 32 Reform Act would limit the scope of Article 32 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice proceedings to probable cause questions. It would also prevent victims from being forced to testify at the pre-trial hearings.

Additional provisions also require that a military attorney of higher rank than the trial and defense counsel preside over the proceedings and that a recorded transcript of the proceedings be made available to all parties upon request.

“These aggressive, commonsense reforms will ensure that the process does not discourage survivors from coming forward and that survivors’ rights are also strengthened and solidified,” McCaskill said in a news release. “I’m delighted to have Sen. Blunt’s help as we move to institute these historic reforms.”

In its current state, Article 32 requires a pre-trial investigation before a sexual assault charge is referred to a general court martial for trial.

The code also empowers the defense counsel to cross-examine witnesses for an undefined amount of time.

“Sexual assault in the military is simply intolerable, and there’s no reason these victims should be revictimized during pre-trial investigations,” Blunt said in a news release. “This legislation will help to ensure that Article 32 hearings focus on determining whether there is probable cause as originally intended, while protecting alleged sexual assault victims from becoming the target of unwarranted and abusive questioning.”

The bill is backed with cosponsors from both sides of the aisle, including Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Ca., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Susan Collins, R-Maine, Max Baucus, D-Mont., John McCain, R-Ariz., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii.

Reps. Jackie Speier, D-Ca., and Patrick Meehan, R-Penn., will introduce companion legislation in the House.

Outside of Congress, some legal analysts voiced concerns about a bill that seeks to reform the military justice system.

“I think the legislation is a terrible idea and would undermine some of the best aspects of the military justice system — provisions that are in place because of the unique nature of how trials are brought to being in the military system,” said Troy Stabenow, an adjunct professor at the MU School of Law and an assistant federal public defender.

Organizations advocating for the rights of soldiers, such as Protect Our Defenders, welcome the reform bill.

A midshipman was subjected to nearly 30 hours of cross-examination with little rest by 12 different defense attorneys who interrogated the midshipman about her sexual history and denied her the right to counsel, Protect Our Defenders spokesman Brian Purchia said.

“Article 32 hearings were originally designed to function as a probable cause hearing. However, they have been transformed into a ‘mini-trial’ before the actual trial — where the victim’s credibility and character are attacked,” Protect Our Defenders President Nancy Parrish said in a news release.

According to a Department of Defense survey of active duty members of the military, there has been an increase in the number of sexual assaults since 2010, many of which go unreported.

The survey reported that 6.1 percent of female soldiers indicated they experienced “unwanted sexual contact” — higher than the 4.4 percent of women in 2010.

Approximately 67 percent of those who were attacked did not report the incident to a military authority, 66 percent of which “felt uncomfortable making a report” and 51 percent “did not think their report would be kept confidential,” according to the survey.

In the first three quarters of 2013, however, the Pentagon observed a 46-percent increase in reported incidents, McCaskill said in a news release.

“These numbers, while a comfort to no one, represent progress — and hopefully show that with new protections in place and historic reforms on the way, victims will have the confidence to come forward, without removing all accountability from commanders,” McCaskill said in a news release. “However, real progress will require a sustained effort, and today’s data in no way detracts from the urgency I feel in passing into law those reforms.”

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