By Juana Summers
4/23/13 9:00 AM EDT
A top advocate for military sexual assault victims is calling on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to dismiss an Air Force general over his decision to overturn the conviction of a lower-ranking Air Force officer who was court-martialed for sexual assault.
Protect our Defenders President Nancy Parrish argues that Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, the commander of the Third Air Force, used “failed and biased reasoning and unreliable information” in his decision to dismiss the sexual assault conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, according to a copy of the letter obtained by POLITICO.
Parrish argued that Franklin’s decision to overturn the findings of a court martial and free Wilkerson “clearly conflicts with his responsibility to further good order and discipline within the service.”
The case drew a hail of criticism from members of Congress, who argued Franklin’s decision showed an old-boys’ club at work protecting its own. Hagel responded with a proposal that Congress change the Uniform Code of Military Justice to weaken commanders’ abilities to void court martial verdicts, which victims’ advocates welcomed as a first step toward what they say is needed reform.
Franklin, for his part, dismissed charges that he does not take sexual assault seriously. He detailed his decision to overturn the jury’s verdict and dismiss the charges against Wilkerson in a six-page letter to Air Force Secretary Michael Donley last month.
“Accusations by some that my decision was the result of either an apparent lack of understanding of sexual assault on my part, or that I do not take the crime of sexual assault seriously are complete and utter nonsense,” Franklin said in the letter. “I unequivocally view sexual assault as a highly egregious crime. I take every allegation of sexual assault very seriously.”
Instead, Franklin argued, letters from Wilkerson’s family, friends and fellow service members “painted a consistent picture of a person who adored his wife and 9-year-old son, as well as a long-serving professional Air Force officer,” while he found the victim’s statements less credible.
“Obviously it would have been exceedingly less volatile for the Air Force and for me professionally, to have simply approved the finding of guilty. This would have been an act of cowardice on my part and a breach of my integrity,” Franklin wrote. “… After considering all matters in the entire record of trial, I hold a genuine and reasonable doubt that Lt. Col. Wilkerson committed the crime of sexual assault.”
In a 22-page document, Parrish made a point-by-point counter argument for each of Franklin’s claims, accusing Franklin of doing “mental gymnastics” and “substitut[ing] his beliefs for the beliefs of the court members he selected to serve as the fact finders in this case.”
She argued that Franklin’s explanation “provides clear documentation that commanders, who are not trained in legal process and are immersed in conflicting self-interest and biases, should not have authority over investigation, prosecution, judicial or appellate proceedings.”
“Franklin’s disbelief that a ‘model officer and family man’ could commit sexual assault is not a valid belief for reasonable doubt,” Parrish said.
Parrish supports Hagel’s proposal to weaken the power of a “convening authority,” but also said that “Article 60 in the UCMJ is only one part of much larger fundamental problems … [The Pentagon’s] proposed changes from the Pentagon fall short of the necessary fixes to end the epidemic of sexual assault in the military,” she said.
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