Military lawyers grilled over handling of sex assault case

Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, an F-16 pilot, was convicted of groping a woman in 2012 at Aviano Air Force Base in Italy. He was sentenced to one year in prison and dismissed from the Air Force. But his commanding general overturned the verdict. CBS News

Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, an F-16 pilot, was convicted of groping a woman in 2012 at Aviano Air Force Base in Italy. He was sentenced to one year in prison and dismissed from the Air Force. But his commanding general overturned the verdict.
CBS News

(CBS News) WASHINGTON - There was an extraordinary moment Wednesday on Capitol Hill, when a U.S. senator confronted military lawyers over sexual assaults within the ranks. The military's own study shows there were 19,000 sexual assaults in the armed services in 2010, but only a few hundred went to trial. One particular case that has raised serious questions.

Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, an F-16 pilot rated by his superiors as the "best of the best," is at the center of a storm over sexual assault in the military. Sen. Kirsten 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," she told the lawyers at a hearing, "I don't know how you can say that having 19,000 sexual assaults and rapes a year is discipline and order."

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York lashed out at Pentagon lawyers regarding the handling of the Wilkerson case.
CBS News

As a trial record provided by Air Force Times shows, Wilkerson was convicted of groping a 49-year-old woman last year at Aviano Air Base in Italy. He was sentenced to one year in prison and dismissed from the Air Force.

But then Wilkerson's commanding general, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, overturned the verdict, saying the evidence did not prove Wilkerson guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Gillibrand asked a question to which no one had an answer: "Do you think justice was done in that case?"

Under military law, Franklin had the power to overturn the verdict. There was no physical evidence. The trial pitted the accuser -- who swore that she had been awoken in the middle of the night to find Wilkerson molesting her -- against Wilkerson's wife, who testified her husband was sound asleep in his own bed at the time.

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A jury believed the accuser. Franklin apparently believed Wilkerson's wife.

Again, Gillibrand asked the Air Force's top lawyer: "In one instance, justice was not done. Which instance do you believe justice was not done?"

"I can't say. All parties did what they were asked to do by the law," said Lt. Gen. Harding.

"Well, one of the parties was wrong," said Gillibrand. "And if you are the victim in that case to have gone through eight months of testimony of providing evidence, I can assure you she does not believe justice was done."

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has now ordered a review of the case. That could lead to changes in the military's legal procedures, but Wilkerson will remain a free man and an officer in the Air Force.

Meanwhile, the victim wants to remain anonymous. What can be said is that she was a civilian who worked at the hospital in Aviano Air Base. She is in Washington attending the hearings into the problem of sexual assault in the military.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.

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