This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: WASHINGTON – As victims of sexual assault in the military told their stories to a Senate panel on Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and other senators called for reforms in military procedures to help stop widespread abuses.
“The focus of our efforts should be on effective prosecution,” said McCaskill, D-Mo. “There’s no reason a general who’s never heard the testimony of factual witnesses should be able to wipe out a verdict with the stroke of a pen.”
Condemning an Air Force general’s recent dismissal of a jury’s verdict in a military sexual assault case, McCaskill introduced a bill Wednesday to curtail such authority and tighten accountability in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The senator also questioned military justice officials at the hearing and met Tuesday with members of the Air Force’s legal corps to question them about the recent verdict dismissal, the potential impact of her legislation, and the military’s prosecution of sexual assault cases.
At the hearing of the Senate Armed Services military personnel subcommittee, victims of sexual assault – including former Army Sgt. Rebekah Havrilla, part of whose story took place at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri – complained that the military justice system was biased, slow and difficult to deal with. They also said sexual assault and harassment were pervasive in the military.
“What we need is a military with a fair and impartial criminal justice system -- one that is run by professional and legal experts, not unit commanders,” said Havrilla. She had been raped in 2007 by a fellow soldier while serving abroad, and suffered from a stress disorder after she ran into the unpunished perpetrator later at Fort Leonard Wood.
When Havrilla, a bomb squad technician, met with the base’s military chaplain afterward, he told her that “it must have been God’s will for her to be raped” and suggested that she attend church more often, she alleged in a lawsuit.
Over the last decade, there have been numerous courts-martial for sexual assaults by soldiers at Fort Leonard Wood, an Army training base about 140 miles southwest of St. Louis. Most of the victims were service members.
The chairwoman of Wednesday’s hearing, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said nearly 2,500 sexual violence cases in the military services were reported in 2011. But only about 240 of those cases made it to trial. Witnesses said that statistic reflected problems with the military's system for punishing such crimes.
A former Marine Corps captain, Anu Bhagwati, now with the Service Women's Action Network, told senators that court-martial cases involving sexual crimes should be handled by “trained, professional and disinterested” prosecutors. Because commanders often know the accused soldier (and often the victim), she said they are typically not impartial.
In the recent case mentioned by McCaskill, a military jury convicted an Air Force lieutenant colonel of sexual assault and sentenced him to prison. But the base commander, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, used his authority to dismiss the charges and expunge his record – allowing the colonel to be reinstated and eligible for promotion.
Under military law, a commander who convenes a court-martial (in his role as the “convening authority”) has the discretion to reduce or set aside guilty verdicts and sentences. In a letter last week to the two highest officials in the Air Force, McCaskill called for a review of the general’s actions and for disciplinary measures to be considered. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered a review.
McCaskill’s legislation would curtail such authority by commanders to dismiss jury convictions against sex offenders. And it would require written justifications when sentences are lessened or commuted.
“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,” said McCaskill, a former Jackson County prosecutor.
“I hope this bill starts a bigger discussion of how sexual assault cases are being handled by the military and how we can ensure that offenders are being held accountable.”
In the House, U.S. Reps. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, and Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., introduced a similar bill this week to strip commanders of the power to overturn legal decisions or to dismiss, commute, lessen, or order a rehearing after a panel or a judge has found the accused to be guilty and rendered a punishment.
In a letter sent earlier this month to U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Hagel said Gen. Franklin had reversed the guilty verdict after reviewing the case and concluding that the “body of evidence was insufficient to meet the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” But Hagel said neither he nor the Air Force secretary has the legal power to overrule the commander’s decision.
Expressing support for McCaskill’s initiative, Boxer said, “Immediate steps must be taken to prevent senior commanders from having the ability to unilaterally overturn a decision or sentence by a military court.”