Sen. Claire McCaskill deserves commendation for refusing to back off the case of an Air Force lieutenant general who single-handedly overturned a jury verdict in an aggravated sexual assault case.
McCaskill, a Democrat, last week asked top Air Force officials to review the decision by Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin and consider removing him from his post.
“As the Air Force and other military organizations are redoubling efforts to erase a culture that has often turned a blind eye on sexual assault, Lt. Gen. Franklin’s conduct undermines this important shift,” McCaskill wrote to the Air Force authorities.
“His decision shows ignorance, at best, and malfeasance, at worst. I strongly urge you to undertake an immediate review of his conduct and consider removing him from his leadership position.”
McCaskill’s comments followed the release of a six-page letter Lt. Gen. Franklin wrote to explain his reasons for overturning the conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a fighter pilot convicted of sexual assault by an all-male panel of five officers in November.
Among other things, Gen. Franklin’s letter said he believed the version of events described by the fighter pilot under his command more than those of the alleged victim. He further described Col. Wilkerson as a “doting father with a good career.”
To recap: A military jury believed the victim. Gen. Franklin believes Col. Wilkerson. The colonel is a doting father with a good career, therefore, let’s cut him some slack.
Col. Wilkerson was sentenced to a year in a military prison and dismissal from service until Gen. Franklin ordered his release from prison. The action permits Col. Wilkerson to be reinstated in the Air Force.
McCaskill, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, denounced the letter, saying it was “filled with selective reasoning and assumptions from someone with no legal training.
“It’s appalling that the reasoning spelled out in the letter served as the basis to overturn a jury verdict in this case,” she added.
McCaskill, a former prosecutor, introduced a bill last month to curtail the kind of authority the Air Force gives its commanders and to strengthen accountability under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
McCaskill questioned Marine Gen. James Mattis, commander of Central Command, during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the case.
“There’s a culture issue that’s going to have to be addressed here,” she said. “And what this decision did was — all it did was — underline and put an exclamation point behind the notion that, if you are sexually assaulted in the military, good luck.”
The Wilkerson case follows a series of scandals — many of them involving sexual assaults and high-ranking officers — in the military. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is leading an effort that will require generals and admirals to be evaluated by their peers and the people they command on qualities including personal character, the New York Times reported on Sunday.
The so-called “360-degree performance evaluation” may be a good-faith effort to tune up military performances, but it does not offer assurance that sexual assault cases will be handled any differently than they always have been.
The Wilkerson case demonstrates the need for independent oversight to make sure that commanders do not misuse their broad discretion in such cases. McCaskill shouldn’t have to do the job. Women who serve in the armed forces must be assured that military justice means what it says.
From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch