An Air Force lieutenant colonel at the center of a national outcry about sexual assaults in the military has been reassigned to Tucson, the hometown of his accuser.
In November, an all-male jury in military court found Lt. Col. James Wilkerson guilty of aggravated sexual assault against a civilian physician assistant at the Aviano Air Force Base in Italy. At the time of the conviction, he was discharged from the U.S. Air Force and sent to a naval brig for military detention.
But in February, Wilkerson's conviction was overturned by a military general who said he didn't believe the evidence added up.
The general's decision has been widely criticized. Critics say the military has a culture of turning a blind eye to sexual assaults, sexual harassment and rape, and that it protects its own.
Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Lindsey Hahn said Tuesday that she could only confirm that the Air Force assigned Wilkerson to Tucson's Davis-Monthan Air Force Base due to his qualifications and Air Force needs, and stressed that he's been reinstated.
She said Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin concluded that, in his opinion, the evidence at trial didn't amount to "beyond a reasonable doubt." He has the power to overturn convictions, Hahn said.
Wilkerson's attorney could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.
The woman who says Wilkerson assaulted her decided to go public when the conviction was overruled. Kimberly Hanks spoke out in several national media interviews about the 2012 incident and her shock that the conviction was overturned.
In those accounts, she said Wilkerson assaulted her in the middle of the night while she was sleeping in his family's guest bedroom, where she was spending the night after a gathering at the Wilkerson home. She said she woke up to the assault as Wilkerson's wife turned on the light and ordered Hanks to leave.
Not only is Wilkerson returning to the Air Force, but he will be stationed in a city where some of Hanks' relatives live, including her brother and sister-in-law. Those family members will be protesting Thursday afternoon in front of Davis-Monthan, where officials confirmed Wilkerson reported to work this week as the chief of flight safety for the 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern) in Tucson.
"The Air Force couldn't be bothered to notify Kim where Wilkerson was being reassigned. When the Air Force was notified he was being reassigned to our hometown, the Air Force refused to consider moving him to one of the multitude of other bases around the world," Hanks' brother, Tucson orthopedic surgeon Dr. Stephen Hanks, wrote in a prepared statement.
A national group that supports survivors of military sexual assault, called Protect Our Defenders, is organizing the protest. Protect Our Defenders is also circulating a petition on causes.com that has been signed by more than 2,000 people. It is calling on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to remove both Wilkerson and Franklin from the military.
The case has caught the attention of many lawmakers.
Last week a group of Republican and Democratic members of Congress, led by U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., reintroduced a bill called the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention, or STOP Act, which would remove the prosecution and oversight over military sexual assaults and rapes from the normal chain of command. Instead, oversight would move to an autonomous office of military and civilian experts.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been particularly critical of a military judicial system that would allow one commander to singlehandedly overturn a conviction.
In a letter to Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley dated March 5, McCaskill wrote that overturning the conviction was a "stunning decision" and that it demonstrates a "total disregard for the survivors of sexual assault and for the findings of the military justice system at a time when holding sexual predators accountable is critical to our military."
Franklin sent his own letter to Donley defending his decision. He wrote that he considers sexual assault a highly egregious crime but that Hanks gave inconsistent statements. In contrast, Wilkerson and his wife always gave the same account, he said - that Wilkerson's wife asked Hanks to leave the house because Hanks was making too much noise by walking and talking on her cellphone while the family was trying to sleep.
"Obviously it would have been exceedingly less volatile for the Air Force and for me professionally to have simply approved a finding of guilty," Franklin wrote. "This would have been an act of cowardice on my part and a breach of my integrity."
Protect Our Defenders President Nancy Parrish said it's common for people with military convictions for sexual assault to have their sentences lessened. It is less common for a conviction to be overturned, and she fears the Wilkerson case will cause a chilling effect in a culture where sexual assaults are already underreported.
"Someone convicted of aggravated sexual assault is coming to your community," Parrish said, "because one individual fellow fighter pilot with mutual friends made a decision with bias and disregard for the system in order to protect Wilkerson."
Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4134.