Last March, in a town outside the Aviano Air Base in Italy, a group of seven friends and acquaintances went out to a USO concert and drinks at the base club. They ended up at the home of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, and one of the friends was invited by Wilkersons wife to spend the night in a guest room.
The guest, a 49-year-old physicians assistant, woke up around 3 a.m. to find Wilkerson in bed next to her, fondling her breasts and vagina. It might have turned even worse, had Wilkersons wife not flicked on the guest room light. But the woman was kicked out of the house.
In November, an all-male military jury found Wilkerson guilty of aggravated sexual assault. The jury of four colonels and one lieutenant colonel sentenced Wilkerson to a year in jail and dismissed him from the Air Force. But last month, Third Air Force commander Lt. Gen Craig Franklin overturned the jurys verdict and reinstated Wilkerson.
Franklin, who hadnt attended the trial, said he believed Wilkersons guilt had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, according to the publication Stars & Stripes. In fact, Franklin didnt have to have a reason for his decision. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, granted by Congress, commanders have a convening authority that allows them to reduce punishments or dismiss charges for any or no reason.
Last week, in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill called for a review of the case and questioned the sensibility of convening authority. I question now whether that unit where that man returns to, whether theres any chance a woman who is sexually assaulted in that unit would ever say a word, said McCaskill, a former prosecutor.
Thats true not only for Wilkersons Air Force unit, but for women in general. The military has long been plagued with leniency surrounding sexual assaults and the subsequent chilling effect that has on women who might report them. In recent years, the branches have made strides in self-awareness on the issue, including the Air Force, which over the past three years has identified 62 recruits assaulted by drill instructors at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
The Wilkerson verdict, too, had been hailed as an illustration that the culture surrounding military sexual assaults was changing. That verdicts dismissal, however, sends a message to sexual assault victims that the military justice system is still tilted against them, especially when the accused holds a powerful rank, as Wilkerson does.
McCaskill, along with fellow Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, have called for a review of convening authority and the Wilkerson case in a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. California Rep. Jackie Speier is planning on introducing a bill Tuesday that would prevent commanders from lessening such sentences or overturning verdicts.
Defenders of convening authority have long held that commanders know best how to keep order and administer discipline. Clearly, that discretion can be abused, and Congress is right to take a hard look at it, not only for future rape victims, but for a military that apparently still struggles to police itself.