How One Man Can Let His Fellow Servicemember Get Away With Rape

On Monday, one air force general overturned a jury’s rape conviction of Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkerson. Wilkerson was originally dismissed from the Air Force and sentenced to one year in jail for aggravated sexual assault of a woman who was staying the night as a guest in his house.

A jury of four servicemembers found him guilty of having sneaked into the woman’s room while she was sleeping, fondled her breasts, and penetrated her with his fingers. He reportedly stopped when his wife entered the room and turned on the lights.

But Lieutenant General Craig Franklin overturned the case single-handedly, citing his “convening authority” — the absolute ability of one member of the military to overturn a jury. Franklin’s reasoning for overturning the conviction was vague: A spokesperson said he “declined to approve the conviction because he did not think that there was enough evidence to say that he was guilty.”

A group of U.S. Senators on Monday blasted Franklin’s decision, saying that he had, “not adequately explained why he chose to overturn a guilty verdict.” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) added that the case was an opportunity for the military to show whether it took sexual assault accusations seriously, and that Franklin had failed them:

“The military needs to understand that this could be a tipping point,” said McCaskill, a former Jackson County prosecutor and a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I question whether, after this incident, there’s any chance a woman assaulted in that unit would ever say a word. There’s a culture issue that’s going to have to be addressed here. And what this decision did — all it did was underline and put an exclamation point behind the notion that if you are sexually assaulted in the military — good luck.” […]

“I think there is a culture issue,” McCaskill said. “I don’t think one general should be able to overturn a jury. … I have a high degree of frustration.”

Sexual assault is a rampant and under-reported problem in the military. While the actual data is sparse, it was predicted that 19,000 instances (PDF) of Military Sexual Trauma (MST, as it’s called within the armed forces) occurred in the year 2011 alone. Reports of such incidents have been on the rise, to the point that former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta pledged to make it an ongoing goal of the Department of Defense to put a stop to the assaults and the cover-ups of such behavior.