Lawmakers press for changes to military justice system

Senators are intensifying their calls for changes to the military justice system after a guilty verdict in an Air Force sexual assault case was overturned by a lieutenant general.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) held the Senate Armed Services Committee’s first hearing on sexual assault in the military since 2004 on Wednesday, where she and others said that commanders should not have the ability to single-handedly dismiss verdicts.

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“A system where less than one out of 10 reported perpetrators are held accountable for their alleged crimes is not a system that is working,” Gillibrand said. “And that is just reported crimes.”

Lawmakers have renewed their push for changes in the wake of an Air Force case in which a lieutenant general tossed out a guilty verdict in a sexual assault case.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told two senators this week that he was ordering a review of the case, in which Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin dismissed the guilty verdict against Lt. Col. James Wilkerson. Wilkerson's one-year sentence was overturned and he was re-instated in the Air Force.

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta launched several initiatives to curb sexual assault during his tenure, and Hagel has pledged to continue to make the issue a top priority. The Pentagon estimated that 19,000 cases of sexual assault occurred in 2011 in the military, while only 3,200 were reported.

While lawmakers say Hagel’s review is encouraging, the Wilkerson case has fueled new complaints that the military is not taking the issue seriously enough.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) have both introduced legislation this week to remove the power of commanders to change verdicts from a court martial.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) came to the Armed Services committee to testify at Wednesday’s hearing, where she endorsed the legislation.

“That is the first step, and only the first step,” Boxer said.

Boxer, Speier and others have also called for the removal of investigating and prosecuting cases from the military chain of command altogether, and creating an independent agency for these cases.

“We need to take a close look at our military justice system, and we need to be asking the hard questions, with all options on the table, including moving this issue outside the chain of command,” Gillibrand said.

The Wednesday hearing included testimony from victims of sexual assault, who told their stories of how the military failed to help them and give them justice.

“I no longer have any faith or hope that the military will prosecute or convict sexual predators,” said BriGette McCoy, a former Army specialist.

In the afternoon, officials from the military services were scheduled to testify at the hearing.