McCaskill blocks Air Force general's nomination over sex assault case

The Senate's outrage over the military’s approach to sexual assaults is halting the nomination of a female Air Force lieutenant general.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said Friday that she would be sustaining her hold against Lt. Gen. Susan Helms to become vice commander of U.S. Space Command.

In a statement entered into the congressional record, McCaskill said that she was blocking the nomination because Helms had overturned a guilty verdict in a sexual assault case last year.

“With her action, Lt. Gen. Helms sent a damaging message to survivors of sexual assault who are seeking justice in the military justice system,” McCaskill said.

McCaskill had initially placed the hold against Helms in April, and said she wanted to review the legal documents and meet with the general before moving forward.

But after meeting with Helms, McCaskill said she still had “deep concerns” with the case.

“At a time when the military is facing a crisis of sexual assault, making a decision that sends a message which dissuades reporting of sexual assaults, supplants the finding of a jury, contradicts the advice of counsel and further victimizes a survivor of sexual assault is unacceptable,” McCaskill said.

Helms’ 2012 case was the second that came to light this year in which a commander had dismissed a jury’s guilty verdict in a sexual assault case.

The first case occurred in February, when a commander at Aviano Air Base in Italy dismissed a guilty verdict and one-year sentence in a sexual assault case.

The backlash from Congress prompted Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to order a review. While the military said Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, who overturned the verdict, had followed the law, Hagel still proposed changing the military’s judicial code to prevent commanders from being able to toss out verdicts.

The House Armed Services Committee adopted that proposal in the Defense authorization bill that passed committee this week, and the Senate Armed Services Committee, which McCaskill serves on, is expected to include the same changes in its legislation next week.

The change would reverse a policy that’s been in place in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) for decades. It’s just one of the many proposals that Congress is considering in order to address the problem of sexual assault.

Lawmakers have vowed to do more to address the problem of sexual assault in the military in response to a number of high-profile incidents and a Pentagon report estimating there were 26,000 assaults last year, an increase of more than one-third.

McCaskill said in her statement Friday that she would continue to give “great scrutiny” to any commander who overturned a jury verdict in a post-trial review against the advice of legal counsel.

The military has said that the instances of setting aside findings are rare and only occur in about 1 percent of cases.

Opponents of removing commanders’ ability to set aside verdicts, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), say that lawmakers are too focused on a small number of cases and missing the larger problem.

But those supporting the change, including the top military leaders, say that this power is no longer needed because there is a robust appellate process now available to defendants.

The dismissed guilty verdict in the Aviano case was one of the key points that grabbed the attention of Congress.

Helms’s dismissed verdict has not received the same public attention. McCaskill, in fact, was the one who first disclosed it publicly.

“This case, frankly, did not get out in the public domain until I discovered it through conversations with a lot of different prosecutors in the military,” she said in a May MSNBC interview. “Then I said to my staff, let's check and make sure she is not going through on a promotion. Sure enough, we found her name.”

Helms has served in the military for 30 years, and was the first American woman to fly in space.

“It is a tough situation,” McCaskill said last month. “She's had an outstanding career. But she did decide to overturn the decision of a jury she handpicked over whether or not there was sufficient evidence and who was telling the truth. And frankly, that's what we've got to stop.”