Protect Our Defenders News Blog


PRESS RELEASE: Emails from Aviano Sexual Assault Scandal Shows Bias and Blind Loyalty from Military Brass

September 3, 2013 
Contact: Brian Purchia,



Pleas from commander of the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base urging Lt Gen Franklin to not overturn Lt Col Wilkerson’s aggravated sexual assault conviction ignored; Top Brass supportive of decision to protect Air Force pilot with long history of misconduct over victim and justice exposed

Disclosures send chilling reminder to victims of sexual assault in our military who are thinking about coming forward — that military brass will go to extreme lengths to protect status quo and old boy’s network, In public — military leaders make statements that they have changed – correspondence shows opposite, Franklin decision cuts legs out from under brave victims, military prosecutors and military courts.

WASHINGTON, DC – The U.S. military sexual assault epidemic has been international news for months and the case that has become the poster child for calls for an independent and impartial justice system took a disturbing new turn late last week. New evidence released from the Aviano sexual assault scandal show bias and complicity in protecting the old boy’s network over the victim.

“These documents make crystal clear why we need independent and impartial military justice system, outside the often-biased and conflicted chain of command,” said Nancy Parrish, President of Protect Our Defenders. “In great detail they highlight how Lt Gen Craig Franklin and high ranking military officials’ bias against the victim (who the chief prosecutor called, ‘one of the most credible witnesses I’ve ever dealt with’) and how Franklin repeatedly abused his power in order to protect Lt Col James Wilkerson, the perpetrator, even after he had personally overturned the conviction. Lt Gen Franklin was overly invested in seeing that Wilkerson get his clearance reinstated, get a good assignment next tour, and get promoted.”

Lt Col Wilkerson was convicted of aggravated sexual assault against a civilian contractor at Aviano Air Force Base. As his punishment, Wilkerson was dismissed from the Air Force and sentenced to one year in jail. Lt Gen Franklin then overturned the conviction and freed his fellow pilot, reinstating him back into the Air Force against the recommendation of his own legal counsel. Franklin excused Wilkerson’s criminal behavior in part because of his Good Military Character (GMC) and because he was a “doting father and husband” [See point-by-point rebuttal for Franklin’s 18 reasons for overturning the verdict]. After Wilkerson assured Franklin that there were no more skeletons that might come out — a subsequent Air Force investigation revealed that Wilkerson had an affair and fathered a child out of wedlock, further undermining Lt Gen Franklin’s rationale for overturning Wilkerson’s conviction and any logic for retaining him as a Colonel in the Air Force. This was just part of Wilkerson’s long history of misconduct. It is clear that the chain of command “has his back” and certainly not that of the victim. This behavior continues to this day, despite their public statements.

Four months ago, Wilkerson’s victim asked the Air Force to provide documents surrounding the trial and post-trial activities. The military failed to comply with multiple legal deadlines. Only after Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) stepped in and demanded a response that the documents were finally released last week. The newly released emails send a chilling reminder to victims of sexual assault in our military, who are thinking about coming forward, that military brass will go to extreme lengths to protect the status quo.

In the emails, pleas from the Commander of the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano, Brig Gen Scott Zobrist, who was Wilkerson’s immediate commander, urging Lt Gen Franklin to not overturn Wilkerson’s aggravated sexual assault conviction, were ignored.

“That would be absolutely devastating in so many ways that I cannot even begin to consider it,” Zobrist wrote in a Feb. 19, 2013 email. “Having Wilkerson back on active duty at Aviano, even for one day, would… have a huge negative impact on morale, send a very negative message about how seriously we take sexual assault in the AF, and potentially call into question the effectiveness of our UCMJ system in general.”

Lt Gen Franklin dismissed the warnings and instead got support from his entire chain of command to dismiss the jury’s findings and toss out the conviction. In email exchanges, the Air Force Commander in Europe, Gen Mark Breedlove stated that he agreed with Franklin regarding overturning the conviction.

General Breedlove wrote “He [Franklin] and I have discussed in depth the meaning and the possible blow back. I stand behind his decision.” [Click here for more excerpts from the FOIA release.] Furthermore, on March 15, before 500 majors, rising Commanders Breedlove defended Franklin’s actions.

With Breedlove’s blessing, Lt Gen Franklin set aside justice and started a full court press to get Wilkerson promoted and flying again.

“I intend to get him back to a flying assignment ASAP (away from Aviano.) Please make sure Col Wilkerson knows he can contact me or his OG… about the way ahead for his next assignment,” wrote Franklin. “Getting him reunited with is family is the priority for the next few days. Certainly after he and [his wife] have had a chance to discuss it, we will see what he wants to do next.”

Following Lt Gen Franklin’s decision, Protect Our Defenders brought the Wilkerson victim to meet with elected officials ahead of a March Senate hearing on the ongoing epidemic and her case. The advocacy group also launched a campaign demanding President Obama and Sec. Chuck Hagel remove Franklin and Wilkerson from the service.

Meanwhile, calls quickly grew to remove the commander’s authority to overturn verdicts, which the Defense Department recently agreed to adopt. However, commanders still have the authority to overturn sentences  – a remaining danger to justice and potentially as damaging as overturning a conviction.

Members of Congress, from both parties, condemned Franklin’s action. “Franklin clearly substituted his own independent judgment for that of the convened fact-finding panel,” said Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH), a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

“This [Franklin’s explanation] letter, is filled with selective reasoning and assumptions from someone with no legal training, and it’s appalling that the reasoning spelled out in the letter served as the basis to overturn a jury verdict in this case,” said Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO). The Senator went on to say, according to the Washington Post, parts of Franklin’s letter explaining his actions, “just set my teeth on edge.”

In May, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-NY) Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) was introduced, which would move the decision to prosecute sexual assault cases from an often-biased and conflicted chain of command. The legislation has widespread bipartisan backing, with 46 senators publicly supporting the bill, including Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY).

Senior military leaders have repeatedly told Congress and the public that they have “zero tolerance” for sexual assaults in the ranks and that they have changed the culture to address the crisis. The actions revealed in these newly released documents show the opposite. Franklin’s decision and senior military’s support for it has cut the legs out from under military prosecutors thinking about bringing sexual assault cases to trial and sent a extremely negative signal to victims who must decide whether to report their assaults and rapes.

“After decades of military sexual assault scandals from Tailhook to Aberdeen to Lackland and Aviano it is time for our elected officials to put the interests of our brave men and women in uniform ahead of empty promises from military brass,” said Parrish. “The decision of military leaders to support the overturning of the Wilkerson conviction must have been made on faith, faith based on a belief that high ranking officers, whom they trust must be innocent. Our brave sons and daughters, brothers and sisters who risk their lives to protect us –- deserve to receive justice equal that which civilians are entitled – from professional, independent prosecutors, and not be left in the hands of an often biased chain of command.”

This past spring, Wilkerson was reassigned, with his rank of Lt Colonel, to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, where many of Wilkerson’s victim’s family reside.

Read FOIA documents released by the Air Force re: Wilkerson

Stars & Stripes: Emails show general warned against reversing Wilkerson verdict

Protect Our Defenders Point by Point Rebuttal of Gen Franklin’s 18 Reasons for Overturning Col Wilkerson’s Sexual Assault Conviction

Protect Our Defenders petition Calling on President Obama and Sec. Hagel to Remove Lt. Gen. Franklin and Lt. Col. Wilkerson:

Stars & Stripes: Wilkerson had affair that produced a child, Air Force confirms

Military Times: Sex assault clemency surprised prosecutor

Arizona Republic: Protest planned over base transfer of sex-scandal figure

Stars & Stripes: Air Force to probe new allegations in sex assault case that roiled military justice system

Air Force Times: Sex assault clemency surprised prosecutor

Air Force Times: Sex assault clemency surprised prosecutor

Statement to Congress from Aviano Victim:

Politico: A call to fire general in sexual-assault dismissal

Dallas Morning News: Air Force officer, convicted of sexual assault, is assigned to victim’s hometown

Washington Post: Air Force general¹s reversal of pilot’s sexual-assault conviction angers lawmakers

New York Times: Hagel to Open Review of Sexual Assault Case

About Protect Our Defenders: Protect Our Defenders is a human rights organization.  We seek to honor, support and give voice to the brave women and men in uniform who have been sexually assaulted while serving their country, and re-victimized by the military adjudication system – a system that often blames the victim and fails to prosecute the perpetrator. Learn more about Protect Our Defenders at or on Facebook at or follow us on Twitter at

Protect Our Defenders partners with Attorney Susan Burke, Burke PLLC to advance lawsuits filed against the DoD and service academies for repeatedly ignoring rape, sexual assault and harassment, failing to prosecute perpetrators and retaliating against the victim.