By Kristin Davis - Staff writer
The co-chairs of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus today joined a chorus of other lawmakers and victims’ advocates calling for a review of an Air Force three-star general’s controversial decision last month to overturn a sexual assault conviction at Aviano Air Base, Italy.
In a letter to Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley, Reps. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, and Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., asked how a long-held authority of a commander to reverse a jury verdict “is appropriate and consistent with justice, good order and discipline” and efforts by the Defense Department to prevent sexual assault.
The lawmakers asked for a “thorough briefing” on the Aviano case, in which a military jury in November found a lieutenant colonel guilty of aggravated sexual assault and related charges and sentenced him to a year in prison and dismissal from the Air Force. The commander of Third Air Force, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, decided Feb. 26 to disapprove the verdict — a decision that amounted to an acquittal.
Franklin’s decision is final. He has said through a spokesman that he did not believe there was enough evidence to support a guilty finding despite the recommendation by his judge advocate general to the contrary. Franklin has refused Air Force Times requests to elaborate on the decision, which Turner and Tsongas said appears to be a “step backward.”
The lawmakers further asked Donley for a “solid understanding of the necessity and appropriateness” of a commander’s power to single-handedly dismiss the findings of a judge or jury, an authority that has existed in this country for more than 200 years and was signed into law as part of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 1950.
On Tuesday, Reps. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, introduced a bill that would change that. The Military Judicial Reform Act of 2013 would eliminate a commander’s authority to reverse a court-martial decision, reduce a sentence or order a new trial. Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., has added his support to the bill.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., also announced today that she is proposing legislation that would also remove from a commander the ability to vacate a jury verdict and require him or her to provide “written justification for any decision commuting or lessening” a judge or jury sentence.
Currently, the commander, who also is the convening authority in a case, is under no obligation to explain himself.
“Giving military commanders with no legal experience the ability to completely nullify a jury’s verdict without even requiring justification is against everything that we believe about justice in this country,” McCaskill, a former prosecutor, said in a statement.
McCaskill met with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh on Tuesday. A spokesman for Welsh said he would have no comment on the meeting.
The letter from Turner and Tsongas comes about a week after Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., demanded Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also look into the Aviano case.
Hagel agreed to review Franklin’s decision, although he cannot change it. He also said that he has directed the Defense Department’s general counsel to look into Article 60 of the UCMJ. That review is due March 27.
“We intend to work closely with the House Armed Services Committee and anticipate that this matter will be addressed in the committee’s deliberations on the National Defense Authorization Act” for fiscal 2014, Turner and Tsongas wrote.