Military under fire after sex assault rulings

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The military is coming under new fire for its handling of two high-profile sexual assault cases.

Critics blasted as a slap on the wrist the $20,000 reduction in pay imposed Thursday on Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, after he pleaded guilty to charges of mistreating an Army captain he was accused of sexually assaulting.

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More outrage followed hours after Sinclair’s sentencing, when a Navy judge found Naval Academy football player Joshua Tate not guilty of sexual assault.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), the sponsor of a bill to take the decision to prosecute sexual abuse cases out of the military’s chain of command, sharply condemned both decisions.

She said the Naval Academy case was “yet another example of a completely broken military justice system.”

“The commander in this case was such an obstacle to justice being served he was sued by the victim,” she said in a statement. “Despite the evidence, only after media pressure did the commander reverse himself and permit an investigation to go forward.”

She said the Sinclair decision was fresh evidence of the need to pass her bill, which was blocked by a Senate filibuster earlier this month.

“It's not only the right thing to do for our men and women in uniform, but would also mitigate issues of undue command influence that we have seen in many trials over the last year,” Gillibrand said in a statement. 

Other lawmakers also criticized the court decisions, but it is unclear whether they would provide new momentum for Gillibrand’s bill.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Gillibrand’s primary Senate opponent on the issue, has argued the Sinclair case highlights problems with Gillibrand’s approach, which would place the decision to take cases to trial in the hands of military prosecutors.

She has argued that commanders are more inclined to move forward on sexual abuse cases, pointing to the Sinclair case.

“As a former sex crimes prosecutor, Claire knows how difficult these cases can be to prosecute, and this case is obviously a complicated one,” said McCaskill spokeswoman Sarah Feldman. “But one of its lessons highlights what we already know — that commanders are often more aggressive than prosecutors in pursuing prosecutions and vetting these cases.”

Still, even lawmakers opposed to Gillibrand's bill slammed the punishment doled out to the Army general.

"Even with a guilty plea, he received no reduction in rank, discharge or jail time for his substantial transgressions," said Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio). 

Turner, who is against Gillibrand's proposal, said the case bolsters the need for another military justice reform: to increase mandatory minimum sentencing in cases of sexual assault or sexual misconduct. 

The case had many twists and turns before the plea deal was reached, as the prosecution of the sexual assault charges slowly unraveled over questions about the accuser’s credibility and the judge’s ruling that unlawful command influence had occurred in the decision to prosecute.

Greg Jacob, policy director for the Service Women’s Action Network, an advocacy group, said that the issues surrounding unlawful command influence — which arose when the accuser’s attorney discussed the political implications arguing to the commander that the case should be prosecuted — illustrated the problems with the current set-up.

“A system shaky enough to be rocked by allegations of undue command influence cannot provide justice for our troops,” Jacob said. “The General Sinclair case will go down in history as yet another reason we need Sen. Gillibrand's Military Justice Improvement Act." 

In the Tate case, prosecutors said the football player assaulted a woman who was too drunk to consent to sexual activity, according to The Associated Press. The defense argued this was not the case.

Tate was one of three Naval Academy football players accused of sexual assault at a 2012 off-campus party, but he was the only one who went to trial. 

The Navy’s handling of the case has been criticized, and the 30 hours of questioning that the accuser was subjected to in a pre-trial proceedings prompted Congress to change the laws for pre-trial, Article 32 hearings.

Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby declined to comment on specific cases Thursday, but he said that “no one’s taken their eye off” of the issue of sexual assault and holding perpetrators accountable.

 “I understand these are two high-profile cases. They make headlines; I get that,” Kirby said at a press briefing. “But there are plenty of other cases that go all the way to trial and get convictions. And look, prosecutions and convictions, while important in terms of holding people accountable, that's not the ultimate goal here. The ultimate goal here is zero sexual assaults in the military. That's what we're after.