If a married corporate executive threw a party, sexually assaulted a female guest while she slept, got convicted of sexual assault by a jury of his peers — only to have his conviction overturned by the chairman of the board — everyone would call that crazy.
But it’s not crazy. It’s called military justice.
Last year, Lt. Col. James Wilkerson was found guilty in a military court of aggravated sexual assault, abusive sexual contact, and three counts of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentlemen for allegedly digitally penetrating a sleeping house guest, according to Stripes.
The alleged assault happened after a party at Wilkerson’s house at Aviano Air Base in Italy. As it got late, a guest named Kimberly Hanks says she accepted an offer from the Wilkersons to stay in the guest bedroom. Her sleep was later interrupted by the alleged presence of the Air Force officer, she says.
“I opened my eyes, and he was in bed with me with his hands down my pants,” Hanks told the Today Show.
Enter Wilkerson’s wife. From Military.com:
Beth Wilkerson then threw her out, the woman testified, and she left the house after 3 a.m. without her shoes.
Beth Wilkerson denied that. She testified her husband had slept in his bed the entire night and that she had told the woman to leave in the middle of the night because she’d been noisy, walking around the house, and “erratic.”
A military investigator who interviewed Beth Wilkerson later rebutted some of her testimony, as did Capt. Dawn Brock, another guest at the party.
The victim in the case, a 49-year-old physician’s assistant who had only met Wilkerson hours before the assault, had “absolutely zero” motive to lie about Wilkerson sexually assaulting her, chief prosecutor Col. Don Christensen told the jury in closing arguments earlier Friday.
Lt. Col. Wilkerson failed a polygraph test and refused to testify at the trial.
Wilkerson’s character also came into question at trial. Scott Cusimano, a former base staff director, told jurors he found Wilkerson to be “unprofessional” and “exercis[e] poor judgment at times.” After the sexual assault allegations, he was removed from his post as inspector general by Brig. Gen. Scott Zobrist.
The case closed with an all-male jury of fellow officers handing Wilkerson a guilty verdict. He was sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the service.
But there’s a weird twist when it comes to the military justice system — “commander’s discretion.”
Unlike civilian courts, a higher commander has ultimate authority in the military justice system, and unrelated testimony on the character of a servicemember on trial is often factored in.
Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, the overall commander of Air Force units in Europe, including Wilkerson’s, later overturned the conviction and reinstated him, concluding the evidence was insufficient to meet the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
In a letter detailing the decision to overturn the jury, Franklin unwittingly reveals problems inherent in the military justice system that nurtures a sexual assault epidemic in the armed forces — an estimated 19,000 cases per year according to the Pentagon.Franklin listed a number of factors in his decision— faulting the victim for turning down offers of a ride home, saying she was unable to describe the layout of the residence, and adding that he personally did not find her credible, AP reports.
“Franklin clearly substituted his own independent judgment for that of the convened fact-finding panel,” Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told AP. “He took some information that was outside of the proceeding and not deemed credible and used his own judgment of what to accept.”
“It looks to me like he is protecting one of his own,” the victim, Kimberly Hanks, told NBC News.
The case fuels the argument that sexual assault victims are hesitant to come forward, according to Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, speaking to Danger Room: “Why bother to put the investigators, prosecutors, judge, jury and survivors through this if one person can set justice aside with the swipe of a pen?”
Parrish’s comments highlight how the military justice system is stacked against victims of sexual assault from the beginning. Rather than reporting to police, military sexual assault victims must bring accusations to their chain of command — who can decide whether or not to proceed — and can ultimately veto a court’s decision.
That’s likely a factor in these chilling statistics from CBS News:
- 80 per cent of military sexual assaults go unreported.
- In 2011, only 3,192 cases were reported with only 1,516 of those cases were “considered actionable.”
- Only about 8 per cent of cases actually go to trial.
defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has vowed to investigate the matter, suggesting a possible move to take veto power away from commanders in the future.
With his record wiped clean by Lt. Gen. Franklin, Wilkerson is back on active duty. Interestingly however, his name was removed from the promotions list by the Secretary of the Air Force, citing “evidence considered in his court-martial proceedings.”
The move appears to be a concession for some punishment, but therein lies the irony: If Wilkerson did nothing wrong, why not promote him?
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