Hagel calls for stripping brass of ability to overturn guilty verdicts
By Jeremy Herb - 04/08/13 04:29 PM ET
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday recommended that Congress change the law so that Pentagon commanders cannot overturn verdicts in military criminal court cases.
The proposed change in the military’s judicial code comes in the wake of widespread outrage on Capitol Hill over a commander's dismissal of a sexual assault guilty verdict against an Air Force officer.
The decision by the Air Force commander to dismiss the verdict during a case trial at the Aviano Air Base in Italy prompted new charges from lawmakers that the military wasn’t taking the persistent problem of sexual assault seriously enough.
The move would reverse a longstanding precedent in the military's Uniform Code of Military Justice that allows a convening authority to review cases and reduce penalties or dismiss a verdict.
In a statement, Hagel said the proposal would strip the ability of a convening authority to dismiss the verdicts of a court martial, except for certain minor offenses. Defendants would still be able to appeal their cases.
But commanders would retain the ability in the military code to reduce sentences in a post-trial review. Hagel's proposal would require that any changes would have to be explained in writing, in order to justify modified sentences.
The changes Hagel is proposing must be made through legislation in Congress. Several lawmakers have already made their own proposals to strip commanders’ ability to toss out guilty verdicts.
“These changes, if enacted by Congress, would help ensure that our military justice system works fairly, ensures due process, and is accountable,” Hagel said. “These changes would increase the confidence of service members and the public that the military justice system will do justice in every case.”
Hagel said the move had the “full support” of the Joint Chiefs and the service secretaries.
Some Republicans have expressed concerns about changing the military code, led by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), an Air Force lawyer still in the Reserves.
In the Aviano sexual assault case, which Hagel also asked the Air Force to review, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin tossed out the guilty verdict of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, who had been sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the Air Force.
Senior defense officials said Monday that a review of the Aviano case by the Air Force found Franklin complied with the military code in overturning the verdict.