WASHINGTON - An Air Force general who overturned the sexual assault conviction of a fellow fighter pilot now finds himself caught in a political crossfire that could change military justice; perhaps, some fear, for the worse.
Citing the general's actions, lawmakers including Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Claire McCaskill of Missouri are pressuring the Pentagon to restrict commanding officers' power to dismiss court-martial convictions. The lawmakers are not, however, seeking to restrict their officers' corresponding power to press ahead with sexual assault cases that investigators may consider weak.
The result could be a further tilting of scales that some fear already may be swinging out of balance, as a military that once seemed oblivious to sexual assault now moves full force against it. At the least, what happens next will highlight the extraordinary clout that the military justice system grants commanding officers in sexual assault and other criminal cases.
Although the general's high-profile reversal of the sexual assault conviction is seizing attention, it's a step that's rarely taken.
Meanwhile, a McClatchy Newspapers review of nearly 70 military sexual assault cases, involving thousands of pages obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, found that commanding officers aggressively pursue sexual assault prosecutions, sometimes over the objections or concerns of investigators. Many acquittals have resulted.
Lawmakers are mobilizing in the wake of Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin's Feb. 26 overturning of the aggravated sexual assault conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, an F-16 pilot who's back on active duty after his release from a military prison in Charleston, S.C.
"This is a travesty of justice," Boxer and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., wrote Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday. "At a time when the military has unequivocally stated that there is zero tolerance for sexual assault, this is not the message it should be sending."
McCaskill, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, blasted "the arbitrary decision of one general" to reject a military conviction.
"This could be a tipping point, I think, for the American people to rise up, particularly the women, and say, 'I don't think one general should be able to overturn a jury,' " McCaskill told Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, the head of the U.S. Central Command.
All of which worries military defense attorneys and scholars, who fear a congressional overreaction.