Armed Services panel questions Hagel over overturned assault verdict

“How is a convening authority’s ability to overturn the adjudged sexual assault conviction and sentence of a General Court-Martial, as in the case of Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkerson, United States Air Force, appropriate and consistent with justice, good order and discipline, and the Department’s policy of zero tolerance for sexual assault?” the lawmakers wrote in a letter that included 18 members of the committee.

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The letter requested that Hagel provide an analysis of the rationale for a convening authority’s responsibility in military cases, as well as a summary of all cases since 2008 in which a commander dismissed cases.

Hagel ordered a review of the Aviano assault case this week.

Numerous lawmakers have expressed outrage over the Aviano case, which comes on the heels of a major Air Force sexual assault scandal last year at Lackland Air Base. They have called for stripping commanders of the ability to dismiss cases in the wake of the overturned verdict.

The Senate Armed Services Committee had its first hearing on military sexual assault since 2004 on Wednesday. Lawmakers pressed military officials to explain how justice was served with the overturned verdict.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) dropped in on the subpanel hearing to ask the Pentagon’s acting general counsel his thoughts on changing the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

“Given that a service member can now appeal his conviction to the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals and then — in the case we're talking about — to the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, is there any reason now to allow convening authorities to overturn a court martial conviction on the basis of legal errors at trial?” Levin asked.

“We are going to look into that very thoroughly with a very much of an open mind,” acting general counsel Robert Taylor responded.

Taylor later said that it seemed “odd” to be able to reject the findings of a jury.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is still an Air Force lawyer in the Reserves, said Wednesday that changing the UCMJ was “problematic,” because the military justice system is different from the civilian world.

“We're talking about a handful of convening authority actions, given thousands of cases. Please don't over-indict the system,” Graham said at the Wednesday hearing.