WASHINGTON Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is recommending that military commanders be stripped of their ability to reverse criminal convictions of service members, a move that comes in response to a congressional uproar over an Air Force officer's decision to overturn a guilty verdict in a sexual assault case, U.S. officials said Monday.
According to defense officials, Hagel will seek legislation requiring that cases go through the U.S. Court of Military Appeals, and that senior officers no longer have the authority to set aside guilty findings. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly about the decision.
Hagel is ordering his staff to draft legislation. The change requires congressional action, but lawmakers have already begun looking into the matter in response to a furor over a recent Air Force sexual assault case.
Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the 3rd Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, overturned the conviction against Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy, who had been found guilty last Nov. 2 of charges of abusive sexual contact, aggravated sexual assault and three instances of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. The incident had involved a civilian employee.
A trial record shows Wilkerson was convicted of groping a 49-year-old woman at the air base, CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reported last month.
Wilkerson was sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the service, but after a review of the case Franklin overturned the conviction. His decision triggered outrage among senators and calls for a new look at the military justice system.
At a hearing last month, Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand lashed out at Pentagon lawyers who claimed the Wilkerson case was the product of a military law designed to promote good order and discipline.
"If that is your view, I don't know how you can say that having 19,000 sexual assaults a year is discipline and order," Gillibrand said.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. said that Franklin's decision sets the Air Force "all the way back to Tailhook." The 1991 Tailhook scandal rocked the military as Navy pilots were accused of sexually abusing female officers at a Las Vegas convention.
Hagel ordered a review of the issue, but he does not have the sole authority to either change the law or the reverse Franklin's ruling.
Air Force officials have argued that overturning the results of a military court martial and granting clemency is rare. In the past five years, senior commanders have overturned 40 guilty verdicts out of the 3,713 courts martial that were tried. Of those, the Air Force said that 327 involved sexual assaults and just five of those convictions were reversed.
Under the current law, if an accused service member is found guilty and sentenced, the findings are not final until they are approved or disproved by the convening authority. The convicted service member can request clemency and the general officer usually a major general or lieutenant general seeks legal advice, reviews the trial record and considers information submitted by the accused.