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Air Force commander defends overturning sexual assault guilty verdict

Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, an F-16 pilot, was convicted of groping a woman in 2012 at Aviano Air Force Base in Italy. CBS News

(CBS/AP) WASHINGTON - On Nov. 2, 2012, a jury convicted Lt. Col. James Wilkerson of sexually assaulting a female civilian contractor after a party at his home. The former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy was sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the service.

But soon after, an Air Force commander, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, overturned the jury's verdict and dismissed the charges - a move that was widely criticized and led to the Defense Department proposing that commanders be largely stripped of their ability to reverse criminal convictions of service members.

In a detailed six page letter to Air Force Secretary Michael Donley obtained by The Associated Press, Franklin explains why he decided to reverse the verdict, saying he found the accused officer and his wife more believable than the alleged victim.

Franklin, commander of the 3rd Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, noted that the victim turned down offers to be driven home from the party and instead spent the night at the home of Wilkerson and his wife, both of whom she'd only met earlier that evening.

Furthermore, she didn't accurately describe the house layout and gave a version of events that Franklin said he did not find credible. Franklin said Wilkerson was a doting father with a good career and it would be "incongruent" for him to leave his wife in bed, go downstairs and assault a sleeping woman he'd just met.

"Basically [Franklin] just sold our point," Jennifer Norris, an advocate with the Military Rape Crisis Center, told CBS News' Crimesider. "That's why they keep getting away with it, because they can manipulate these commanding officers."

Norris says the case reveals the "Modus operandi" of sexual predators and that people have a hard time believing someone they know or work with to be capable of such behavior.

Franklin acknowledged that Wilkerson failed a polygraph test and that there were some differences between the colonel's version of events and his wife's, both of whom denied the alleged victim's accusation.

But Franklin said he took into account Wilkerson's willingness to submit to the lie-detector test as well as additional testimony from others that was ruled inadmissible in the actual court proceedings, leading members of Congress to question how Franklin could base part of his decision on evidence deemed not credible by the court.

"Franklin clearly substituted his own independent judgment for that of the convened fact-finding panel," said Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. "He took some information that was outside of the proceeding and not deemed credible and used his own judgment of what to accept. In the end he concludes that he fully believes Colonel Wilkerson's statement of events, even though the colonel refused to testify and failed a polygraph."

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the letter makes clear how important it is to take the authority to overturn guilty verdicts away from commanders.

"This letter was like fingernails on a blackboard to me," McCaskill said Wednesday. "It puts the victim in a difficult position again, and I hate that."

Both McCaskill and Turner said lawmakers are working on changing the law to strip this power from commanders, so that similar incidents can be avoided in the future.

In his letter, Franklin said he takes sexual assault cases very seriously and reviews all matters fairly. He said he struggled with the difficult case and spent three weeks reviewing tapes, testimony and dozens of letters submitted in support of Wilkerson.

In the end, Franklin said, "I could not in good conscience let stand the finding of guilty."

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