An Air Force fighter pilot is found guilty of sexually assaulting a woman in his home and sentenced to one year in military prison. He is dismissed from the service without benefits. Then, his commanding officer throws out the verdict and reinstates the pilot’s active-duty status.
That “inexplicable decision,” as the New York Times called it in an op-ed Tuesday, may sound like the plot of a military novel or movie. But it’s what reportedly happened in a case that is now under review at the highest levels of the Pentagon. The case could prompt changes to how the military justice system handles sexual assault cases, which is the subject of a Senate subcommittee hearing being held Wednesday and legislation introduced in the House on Tuesday.
Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, senior commanders decide whether criminal charges are brought against military personnel and have the power to veto court-martial findings. As a result, service members who are victims of sexual assault effectively don’t have the same rights as civilians, argues the Service Women’s Action Network. As the Times puts it: “For women who have been sexually assaulted, it means that their bosses decide whether charges are brought against their assailants, and that information about their assaults is shared in their workplaces.” It also means the assailant’s boss can decide whether or not the assailant in his or her charge is guilty.
This makes no sense. If commanders are able to unilaterally dismiss charges, it’s understandable why victims would fear reporting an assault or believe it to be a fruitless effort. This could go a long way toward describing the startling numbers released by the Department of Defense last year, which showed that — of an estimated 19,000 cases of sexual assault in 2011 — only 3,192 (or about one-sixth) were reported.
Not only might such a policy discourage victims from coming forward, but relationships up and down the chain of command could get in the way of independent assessments. Commanders could ignore claims to protect the reputations of their own groups. And, as senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) asked Hagel in a letter, how can sweeping institutional reforms being put into place remain relevant “when a case of this magnitude can be thrown out at the discretion of a Convening Authority”?
Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, the commanding officer who exercised his discretion and overturned the case, may have reasoned that the evidence against the Air Force pilot was “insufficient to meet the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” Maybe so. But the real question is why he should be the one making that decision. Our military leaders should be trusted to lead their commands, not to make judicial verdicts.