Court weighs Marine commandant’s role in sex assault cases

An appellate court is weighing whether statements from Marine Commandant James Amos that called for sexual assault perpetrators to be booted from the Marine Corps should be considered “unlawful command influence.”

Defense attorneys in military sexual assault cases have used Amos’s comments that 80 percent of sexual assault accusations are “legitimate” — as well as comments from President Obama — to argue commanders were exerting unlawful influence.

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The Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals on Tuesday heard oral arguments in the first appeals case involving Amos’s comments, the Marine Corps Times reported.

In the case, former Sgt. Roger Easterly was sentenced to two years after he received bad conduct discharge. He was convicted of adultery and making false statements but was acquitted of rape and sexual assault charges, according to the Times.

His legal counsel appealed the ruling, arguing that the severity of Easterly’s sentence was tied to Amos’s comments.

“If you’ve got a Marine that’s not acting right, the commandant said, you’ve got to get rid of him. It’s as simple as that,” Marine Capt. David Peters said. “This panel followed his counsel and gave him exactly what he asked for.”

The chief judge on the appellate court, Navy Capt. Moira Modzelewski, pressed Peters on how Amos had an impact on the outcome of the case when Easterly was acquitted on sexual assault charges.

“Wouldn’t a disinterested member of the public look at this trial and say, ‘Maybe these people didn’t listen to the commandant?’ ” she said, according to the Times.

The command influence arguments from defense attorneys have come as top military officials and lawmakers are pressing for the military has to crack down on the problem of sexual assault.

Lawmakers in Congress have introduced dozens of measures to address the problems in the military, and Pentagon leaders have vowed zero tolerance for sexual assault.

Unlawful command influence is part of the military’s justice system, where a commander may not attempt to influence the outcome of a court-martial.