Last week, top Air Force commander Lieutenant General Craig Franklin did something incredibly unusual and, frankly, scary: He dismissed a lieutenant colonel's rape conviction after a trial by jury.
According to the AP, Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkerson, who was stationed on an Air Force base in Italy, was convicted in November on charges of "abusive sexual contact, aggravated sexual assault and three instances of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman," in an incident that "involved a civilian employee." Wilkerson was dismissed from the military and sentenced to a year in prison.
But Franklin then turned around and dismissed the conviction, citing insufficient evidence—even though, according to this story in the Air Force Times, Franklin was the one who sent the case to court martial and he selected the all-male jury himself. As that AFT article explains, "in the military justice system, the convening authority—in this case, Franklin—can single-handedly reduce or set aside sentences or overturn a jury conviction."
Here's the good news: A group of female US senators aren't taking that bullshit lying down. Senators Claire McCaskill, Barbara Boxer, and Jeanne Shaheen caught wind of the case, and while McCaskill sent a scathing letter to the Air Force demanding an explanation, Boxer and Shaheen contacted newly minted defense secretary Chuck Hagel, asking him to investigate.
That resulted in the Senate hearing today, containing this exchange, according to the AP report:
"Do you really think that after a jury has found someone guilty, and dismissed someone from the military for sexual assault, that one person, over the advice of their legal counselor, should be able to say, 'Never mind'?" Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., asked Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, the top officer at U.S. Central Command, at a Senate hearing.
Mattis explained that commanders, including female commanders, have the authority to act for a reason. "And I would just tell you that I would look beyond one case," he said.
After the hearing today, the Air Force Times laid out the stakes:
Some have heralded the commander’s decision as an act of justice in a military system that has become over-zealous in its pursuit of sexual assault convictions. Others have said the reversal does untold harm to future victims of military sex crimes who are already hesitant to come forward.
Now that Oscar-nominated documentary The Invisible War has been shining a glaring spotlight on the epidemic of rape in the military, it seems insane for something like this to happen. I'll confess I haven't seen the film, only because I keep hearing it's a harrowing experience just to watch and I haven't steeled myself for it. But it seems from reviews and interviews that an important part of the story it tells is how incredibly difficult it is to even report rape in the military and be taken seriously. For a sexual assault case to go all the way through a court martial and get a conviction and then for that conviction to be thrown out by a single commander is mind-boggling. It's insane. Here's hoping those pissed-off senators keep holding military feet to the congressional fire.