WASHINGTON — A case involving an Air Force general who dismissed charges against a lieutenant colonel convicted of sexual assault will be reviewed at the top levels of the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a letter released today. But it seemed unlikely that the ruling would be changed.
Hagel said that under military law, neither he nor the Air Force secretary has the authority to reverse Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin's decision to overturn the conviction against Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy.
Hagel's letter is dated March 7 and was sent to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who released it publicly. The Senate Armed Services Committee is holding a hearing Wednesday on sexual assaults in the military and the Wilkerson case is expected to be a major topic of discussion.
Boxer and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, , D-N.H., wrote to Hagel last week asking him to look into the case. They called Franklin's decision to overturn the jury verdict "a travesty of justice."
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., told Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, in a March 5 letter that Franklin's decision "shows ignorance, at best, and malfeasance, at worst."
Shaheen and McCaskill are members of the committee.
In the letter to Boxer, Hagel refers to Franklin as the "convening authority," a term for a commander who is responsible for establishing a court-martial. The Uniform Code of Military Justice gives a convening authority the "sole discretion" to reduce or set aside guilty verdicts and sentences, or to reverse a jury's verdict.
Wilkerson was convicted on Nov. 2 by a military panel on charges of abusive sexual contact, aggravated sexual assault and three instances of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. The incident involved a civilian employee. Wilkerson was sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the service.
But Franklin, commander of 3rd Air Force, exercised his discretion and reviewed the case over a three-week period and concluded "that the entire body of evidence was insufficient to meet the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt," Hagel wrote.
Although convening authorities are not required to provide reasons for their decisions, Hagel said he has directed the Pentagon's general counsel and the Air Force secretary to examine Franklin's decision "to determine how the factual basis for the action can be made more transparent."
Hagel also said the Wilkerson case raises the question of whether it is necessary or appropriate "to place the convening authority in the position of having the responsibility to review the findings and sentence of a court-martial," particularly when military law allows for a rigorous appellate process. He said he is ordering the Air Force and other military services to examine that question and determine if changes to military law are necessary.
Boxer said in a statement that she is encouraged by Hagel's response.
"I believe that we should end the ability of senior commanders to unilaterally overturn a decision or sentence by a military court and from the tenor of his letter, I am hopeful that Secretary Hagel will reach the same conclusion," Boxer said.