It seems that all the tough rhetoric on sexual assault in the military from President Barack Obama and Commandant of the Marine Corps James Amos may be doing more harm than good.
There’s little doubt that their intentions are in the right place, and that both men take sexual assault in the military seriously, but recent reports detail how their words may amount to unlawful command influence.
At the White House in May, Obama said that perpetrators of sexual assault in the military should be “prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged — period.”
The commandant’s words on sexual assault are lock-step with Obama’s. Last year, Amos went on a “Heritage Brief” tour to different Marine installations where he lectured officers and staff noncommissioned officers on leadership and values, including sexual assault.
In at least one of these meetings, Amos reportedly expressed that he was “very, very disappointed” when courts-martial did not result in discharge for the accused.
The problem is that both of these cases potentially amount to unlawful command influence, which occurs when senior military leaders, wittingly or not, influence court proceedings. If military jurors at sexual assault cases heard the president’s or the commandant’s remarks, it could hinder the prosecution of alleged sexual assault perpetrators.
And that’s exactly what’s happening. A report by Jennifer Steinhauer in the New York Times last month detailed how defence attorneys across the military are using the president’s remarks to help their clients get off the hook for the charges they face.
“When the commander in chief says they will be dishonorably discharged, that’s a pretty specific message,” retired Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Romig, the former judge advocate general of the Army, told the Times. “Every military defence counsel will make a motion about this.”
Among the most egregious incidents profiled in the Times, in May, a judge at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina dismissed sexual assault charges against an Army officer accused of sexual assault, citing Obama’s remarks.
A Marine Corps Times piece by Dan Lamothe and Gina Hawkins describes similar circumstances for the commandant.
Harkins and Lamothe detail how judges have determined that Amos unlawfully influenced sexual assault trials in no fewer than four cases over the past year, and at least 80 motions have been filed alleging unlawful influence since last year’s “Heritage Brief” tour.
Amos is already under scrutiny for potential unlawful command influence in the Taliban urination scandal, where he pressured and subsequently removed Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the convening authority on the case, who wanted nonjudicial punishment for the accused.
There’s a saying in the Marine Corps — “Good initiative, bad judgement” — It’s used when you’re trying to help a situation, but you haven’t fully thought out the ramifications of your actions. Seems appropriate here.
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