Nation roundup for March 11
Military sexual assault bill OK’d
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill late Monday making big changes in the military justice system to deal with sexual assault, including scrapping the nearly century-old practice of using a “good soldier defense” to raise doubts that a crime has been committed.
On a vote of 97-0, the Senate rallied behind a bipartisan plan crafted by three female senators — Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Republicans Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Deb Fischer of Nebraska — that would impose a half-dozen changes to combat the pervasive problem of rape and sexual offenses that Pentagon leaders have likened to a cancer within the ranks.
“Unanimous agreement in the U.S. Senate is pretty rare — but rarer still is the kind of sweeping, historic change we’ve achieved over the past year in the military justice system,” McCaskill said after the vote.
The House could act on the legislation as a stand-alone measure or incorporate it into the massive defense policy bill that it pulls together in the spring.
The new legislation would change the military rules of evidence to prohibit the accused from using good military character as an element of his defense in court-martial proceedings unless it was directly relevant to the alleged crime. The “good soldier defense” could encompass a defendant’s military record of reliability, dependability, professionalism and reputation as an individual who could be counted on in war and peacetime.
Under the bill, the defense could still be used in the sentencing phase.
General’s sex case in jeopardy
FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — The sexual assault case against an Army general was thrown into jeopardy Monday when the judge said the military may have improperly pressed ahead with a trial to send a message about its determination to curb rape and other widespread misconduct.
Judge Col. James Pohl refused to dismiss the charges against Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair but offered the defense another chance to plea-bargain the case down with a different set of military officials.
The twist comes with the Pentagon under heavy pressure from Congress and beyond to combat what the military says is an epidemic of rape and other sex crimes.
On Monday, in fact, the Senate was expected to approve legislation cracking down on misconduct.
Pohl reviewed newly disclosed emails in Sinclair’s case and said he found evidence of unlawful command influence in Fort Bragg officials’ decision to reject a plea deal before the trial began late last week.
Under the military code of justice, the decision was supposed to be decided solely on the evidence, not its broader political implications.
The defense has until this morning to decide whether to submit a plea bargain proposal again or allow the court-martial to proceed.
Sinclair, the 51-year-old former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, is accused of twice forcing a female captain to perform oral sex on him in Afghanistan in 2011 during a three-year extramarital affair. He has admitted to the affair but denied assaulting the woman.
He is believed to be the highest-ranking U.S. military officer ever court-martialed on sexual assault charges. He could get life in prison if convicted.
Richard Scheff, the general’s lead defense lawyer, would not say how he might proceed.
“This is an unprecedented situation. It’s a mess created by the government. It wasn’t created by us. We have so many options, we don’t even know what they all are,” he said.
Military prosecutors had no comment after the hearing.
Before the trial, Sinclair had offered to plead guilty to some of the lesser charges in exchange for the Army dropping the sexual assault charges, but he was turned down.
A key issue is whether the rejection was influenced by concerns about the message it would send across the military. A letter by the lawyer for Sinclair’s accuser that raised such concerns was discussed in emails between a high-ranking Washington-based Army lawyer, the prosecutors and the commanding general overseeing the case.
Pohl said he doesn’t think the whole case was tainted, just the decision on a plea agreement.
The judge also criticized prosecutors for not giving defense lawyers the emails sooner: “The only reason we are in this conundrum is because of the government’s late notice.”
Meanwhile, the Senate appeared to be headed toward an overwhelming vote Monday in favor of big changes in the military justice system to deal with sexual assault, including scrapping the nearly century-old use of the “good soldier defense” to raise doubts that a crime has been committed.
Currently, those accused of wrongdoing can cite their good military records.
The Pentagon has estimated that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted in 2012, based on an anonymous survey. Many victims are unwilling to come forward despite new measures to curb abuse, the military says.
Last week, Sinclair pleaded guilty to three lesser charges involving adultery with the captain and improper relationships with two other female Army officers. Those charges could bring 15 years in prison. A trial then began on the remaining sexual assault charges.
In a December letter sent by her attorney, the female captain opposed the proposed plea agreement. Writing on behalf of her client, Capt. Cassie L. Fowler suggested the deal would “have an adverse effect on my client and the Army’s fight against sexual assault.”
“Acceptance of this plea would send the wrong signal to those senior commanders who would prey on their subordinates by using their rank and position, thereby ensuring there will be other victims like my client in the future,” Fowler wrote.
Though prosecutors deny any consideration was given to Fowler’s comments about the potential fallout, the emails turned over to the defense Saturday show they did discuss the assertions made in the letter.
Lt. Gen. James Anderson, as commander of Fort Bragg, made the final decision to reject the plea offer. Testifying from Afghanistan by telephone, Anderson said the only thing he weighed was the opposition of Sinclair’s accuser to the deal.
Scheff, Sinclair’s chief lawyer, told the judge Monday that the Army had been stonewalling him for months for evidence about those discussions.
“Every time we asked for these, the government has said we were going on a fishing expedition,” Scheff said. “And each time, we catch fish.”
Depth, distance reduce impact of California quake
EUREKA, Calif. (AP) — One of the largest earthquakes to hit California in decades rattled the state’s northern coast, but its depth and distance from shore reduced the impact on land, where there were no reports of injuries or damage, scientists and authorities said on Monday.
The magnitude-6.8 quake struck at 10:18 p.m. PDT Sunday and was centered 50 miles west of Eureka and about 10 miles beneath the Pacific seabed, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It was initially reported as a magnitude-6.9, but later downgraded.
By late Monday morning, it had already produced 20 aftershocks of magnitude-3.5 or larger, and more were expected over the coming days, said Keith Knudsen, deputy director of the USGS’s Earthquake Science Center in Menlo Park, Calif.
Knudsen said there was also a 5 to 10 percent chance of a larger quake in the area in the next week.
Sunday’s quake was felt widely across the region, but both fire and sheriff’s officials in Humboldt County said they had no reports of any damage or injuries. Humboldt County includes most of the populated areas closest to the epicenter.
“Everybody felt it region-wide to the point that there was concern for damage,” said Humboldt County Sheriff’s Lt. Steve Knight. But other than triggering some home alarms, the county escaped unharmed, he said. “We’re very grateful.”
There was no tsunami danger for the region as well, according to the National Tsunami Warning Center.
More than 3,000 people reported on the USGS website that they felt the quake within hours of it striking, including some across the border in Oregon.
“It was a big bump and then it rolled for about 30 seconds,” said Diana Harralson, 64, who lives in an apartment in Rio Dell, about 55 miles southeast of the earthquake’s epicenter. “It was a real good shaker.”
Harralson said some knickknacks fell off the wall, but there was no damage. A California native who has experienced other earthquakes, she said she and her cat slept comfortably through the night.
Amandip Heer, a manager at a 76 Gas Station and convenience store in Eureka, described the quake as a “vibration,” but said nothing fell off the shelves at the store, and there was no other damage.
Earthquakes are very common in Eureka, a city of about 27,000 people about 270 miles northwest of San Francisco and 100 miles south of the Oregon state line. Nearby Arcata is home to about 17,000 people and Humboldt State University.
Since 1980, there have been 10 earthquakes greater than magnitude-6 in the area, Knudsen said. California has experienced at least seven earthquakes of magnitude-6.9 over the same period, according to the USGS.
Sunday’s quake was far enough from shore to allow much of its energy to dissipate, Knudsen said.
“We’re fortunate it didn’t strike closer to a populated area,” he said.
An offshore earthquake of magnitude-7.2 about 30 miles southwest of Eureka in 1992 left 95 people injured and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage, according to the USGS. The earthquake was felt as far south as San Francisco.
It was followed by a magnitude-6.5 earthquake about 12 hours later and a magnitude-6.7 earthquake a few hours after that, both of which caused additional damage.
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