Air Force General Defends Overturning Sexual Assault Conviction By Blaming Victim

The letter an Air Force general wrote defending his decision to overturn a jury’s sexual assault conviction made its way online on Wednesday, showcasing the sometimes arbitrary nature of military justice when it comes to sexual violence cases.

Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin drew headlines and outrage in March for overturning Lt. Col. James Wilkerson’s sexual assault conviction, nullifying his remaining prison sentence and returning him to service in the Air Force. In his letter to Air Force Secretary Michael Donley defending his decision, Franklin explained that he was acting fully in compliance with the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and that he would be “entirely remiss in [his] sworn military duty and responsibility” if he had not overturned the jury’s findings.

Franklin’s memo listed 18 points of contention he saw in the evidence presented during Wilkerson’s court-martial, including several points that either were ruled inadmissible in court or specifically shifted the blame of any assault on the victim:

  • The victim turned down three offers of a ride and seemed to have differing reasons why she wanted to stay.
  • The victim had trouble identifying and describing parts of the house, didn’t remember the attacker’s mustache and didn’t correctly describe her path out of the house.
  • Wilkerson’s wife’s account of the events differed in some details from her husband’s, but Franklin said the conflicts suggested that the two didn’t collude on a manufactured story.
  • Testimony from the friend who took the alleged victim to the hospital the next day was not admissible in court, but Franklin said it indicated there could be a reason the woman might be less than candid.

“As I have previously stated, after considering all matters in the entire record of the trial, I hold a genuine and reasonable doubt that Lt. Col. Wilkerson committed the crime of sexual assault,” Franklin concluded. Franklin’s decision to overturn the findings of both the jury and the military judge in the court-martial is entirely in line with current law, which provides that the “convening authority” — the senior officer who called the court-martial — can throw out any case’s ruling without providing a reason. In his letter, Franklin made clear that he was not setting a precedent for future convening officers in writing to Secretary Donley.

Franklin’s explanation was not well met on Capitol Hill, where several members of Congress are already seeking to change the law. “This explanation crystalizes exactly why the convening authority should not have the unilateral ability to overturn a jury verdict — and why we need legislation that restricts their ability to do so,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) said in a statement. “This letter is filled with selective reasoning and assumptions from someone with no legal training, and it’s appalling that the reasoning spelled out in the letter served as the basis to overturn a jury verdict in this case.”

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Tuesday proposed a change in the current law that would strip the convening authority of their ability to overturn verdicts in most cases as the first step in correcting the military’s sexual assault problem. Currently an estimated 19,000 instances of military sexual trauma take place in the U.S. armed services every year, the vast majority of which go unreported for fear of reprisal or scorn.