Hagel orders review of sexual assault case

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is reviewing a lieutenant general’s decision to overturn a guilty verdict in a sexual assault case.

Hagel wrote in a letter to Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) that he told the Air Force secretary and Pentagon lawyers to review the case after Lt. Col. James Wilkerson’s guilty verdict was dismissed by Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin.

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Boxer, Shaheen and other lawmakers have expressed outrage over the case, in which Wilkerson was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the Air Force.

Franklin tossed out the guilty verdict while conducting a review of the case as directed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Wilkerson was also reinstated in the Air Force.

Hagel said that the case raised questions about the UCMJ process where commanders can examine verdicts and overturn them.

“I believe this case does raise a significant question whether it is necessary or appropriate to place the convening authority in the position of having the responsibility to review the findings and sentence of a court-martial,” Hagel wrote to the senators.

He said, however, that he and the Air Force secretary have no legal authority to overturn the decision to dismiss the verdict.

Hagel’s comments come as the Air Force is already dealing with the fallout from a sexual assault scandal at Lackland Air Base last year, in which more than 30 basic training instructors are being investigated for sexual misconduct with more than 60 victims.

Many in Congress are calling for the Pentagon to make changes to its policies investigating and prosecuting sexual assault, and the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) included the creation of an independent panel to review the military’s handling of sexual assault.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is holding a daylong hearing this week on military sexual assault, the first Senate hearing on the topic in nearly a decade. The House Armed Services Committee held a hearing on the Lackland scandal earlier this year.

In addition to Boxer and Shaheen’s request for a review of the Wilkerson case, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) called for Franklin to be relieved of his command while an investigation is conducted.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) has scheduled a press conference Tuesday to announce new legislation that would prevent commanders from being able to overturn court-martial verdicts. She has also called for creating an independent entity to prosecute sexual assault cases outside the military command.

Both Boxer and Shaheen said they were “encouraged” by Hagel’s letter, and hoped that he would change the Pentagon’s sexual assault policies.

"I believe that we should end the ability of senior commanders to unilaterally overturn a decision or sentence by a military court and from the tenor of his letter, I am hopeful that Secretary Hagel will reach the same conclusion,” Boxer said in a statement.