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A Recent Air Force Sexual Assault Case Displays The Cascading Problems With Military Justice
Senior Airman Brandon T. Wright was found not guilty of sexual assault in October. That brought to an end a case that has been languishing in the military justice system for over three years. About the only positive thing that can be said about this case is that it is over.
The allegations in the Wright case stem from a night of drinking in 2012. The case was investigated, and the commanding officer, Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, determined the case should not go to trial because of a lack of evidence. By the time Franklin dismissed the charges, his credibility on military-justice matters was gone, followed by one of his stars.
Previously, Franklin had overturned the sexual-assault conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson. Wilkerson was convicted in November 2012 of sexual assault of a female guest staying at his residence. In February 2013, Franklin overturned the conviction citing evidence that Wilkerson was a doting father and loyal husband. The Air Force later confirmed that Wilkerson previously had an extramarital relationship, resulting in a child.
Overturning Wilkerson’s conviction drew the ire of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who questioned the Air Force judge advocate general, Lt. Gen. Richard Harding, about the Wilkerson case. In response to her questions Harding said, “All parties did what they were asked to do by the law.” "Well, one of the parties was wrong,” Gillibrand fired back.
Gillibrand continues to push for changes to the military justice system.
After Franklin decided not to send the Wright case to trial, the Pentagon stepped in. Harding recommended the Wright case be transferred to another court-martial convening authority for a “do-over.” By doing so, the military judge, Lt. Col. Joshua Kastenberg found Harding had committed unlawful command influence.
Kastenberg, in his ruling, found that Harding transferred the case because “the failure to have charges preferred against SrA Wright would enable Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to gain needed votes on a pending bill to remove commanders from the court-martial process,” according to Stars and Stripes. Thus, the senior lawyer in the Air Force transferred the Wright case in order to influence pending legislation.
Consider the optics of transferring the case to a new commanding officer and harm it caused to the fairness of this case and the public perception of military justice. In defense of his actions, Harding suggested Kastenberg’s ruling was influenced by lingering ill will toward him. That type of criticism would be unthinkable if the judge was an Article III federal judge with lifetime tenure. Moreover, Harding defended Franklin’s actions during his testimony before Gillibrand in the Wilkerson case, but in the Wright case, was quick to second guess the actions of the same commander.
Either commanders are equipped to make decisions on military-justice issues, or they are not. This authority cannot turn on the propriety of the decision as viewed by Pentagon. As Kastenberg ruled, “Harding committed actual unlawful command influence.” Statements by Harding to the press attempting to undermine the legitimacy of a judge’s ruling only underscore the improper influence that senior officials attempt to exert on what should be an independent judiciary.
This is not the first time Harding engaged in questionable conduct in an attempt to thwart the changes to the military justice system proposed by Gillibrand.
Harding previously distributed a memorandum to all Air Force lawyers encouraging them to engage members of the media in support of keeping “commanders’ authority and the current set-up of the military justice system.” In the Wright case, Harding took his advocacy a step further by violating the law and influencing a court-martial.
Consider the havoc the delay in this case caused. The Air Force staff sergeant had to wait years to have her complaint heard in court. Similarly, Wright had to spend almost an entire enlistment with sexual assault charges hanging over his head. This delay also has an impact on units of both of these service members. It’s inexcusable for this case to have languished for over three years. The lockstep defenders of the current military-justice system, often point to the alleged efficiency of the UCMJ. Clearly this case was not efficiently brought to trial.
In comparison to the lengthy and tainted prosecution of Wright, a civilian jury convicted an Air Force cadet of sexual assault last week. The Air Force could have prosecuted this case, as cadets are subject to the UCMJ, but that prosecution was left to civilian authorities. The allegation was reported on Nov. 2, 2014; less than a year later, civilian authorities secured a conviction. So arguments that the military-justice system is more efficient or effective, as compared to civilian criminal prosecutions, does not withstand scrutiny.
As the military continues to defend the current military-justice system, the facts of this case must be considered. The senior lawyer in the Air Force committed unlawful command influence. If he cannot be trusted to not improperly interfere with a court-martial, what is the likelihood that an untrained military commander wouldn’t do the same?
I take no issue with the outcome of the Wright case. The members of the jury reviewed all of the evidence and rendered their verdict in accord with the law. The issues raised in this article relate solely to the questionable handling of this case by senior military officials.
None of the parties were served well in this case. Wright spent almost an entire enlistment with sexual assaults charges hanging over his head. The woman who reported that she was assaulted also had to wait over three years to have her complaint see the inside of a courtroom. Justice is never served when it takes this long to bring a case to trial.
‘I made promises to the people that I lost’— How the Iraq war forged a Navy SEAL’s path to Harvard Medical School and NASA
Navy Lt. Jonny Kim went viral last week when NASA announced that he and 10 other candidates (including six other service members) became the newest members of the agency's hallowed astronaut corps. A decorated Navy SEAL and graduate of Harvard Medical School, Kim in particular seems to have a penchant for achieving people's childhood dreams.
However, Kim shared with Task & Purpose that his motivation for living life the way he has stems not so much from starry-eyed ambition, but from the pain and loss he suffered both on the battlefields of Iraq and from childhood instability while growing up in Los Angeles. Kim tells his story in the following Q&A, which was lightly edited for length and clarity:
You can almost smell the gunpowder in the scene captured by a Marine photographer over the weekend, showing a Marine grunt firing a shotgun during non-lethal weapons training.
A Marine grunt stationed in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina is being considered for an award after he saved the lives of three people earlier this month from a fiery car crash.
Cpl. Scott McDonell, an infantry assaultman with 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, was driving down Market Street in Wilmington in the early morning hours of Jan. 11 when he saw a car on fire after it had crashed into a tree. Inside were three victims aged 17, 20, and 20.
"It was a pretty mangled wreck," McDonell told ABC 15. "The passenger was hanging out of the window."
New Vietnam War movie 'The Last Full Measure' takes some well-deserved shots at the military’s award process
Todd Robinson's upcoming Vietnam War drama, The Last Full Measure, is a story of two battles: One takes place during an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, while the other unfolds more than three decades later as the survivors fight to see one pararescueman's valor posthumously recognized.
With ISIS trying to reorganize itself into an insurgency, most attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Iraq are being carried out by Shiite militias, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, the deputy commander for operations and intelligence for U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria.
"In the time that I have been in Iraq, we've taken a couple of casualties from ISIS fighting on the ground, but most of the attacks have come from those Shia militia groups, who are launching rockets at our bases and frankly just trying to kill someone to make a point," Grynkewich said Wednesday at an event hosted by the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.