By Kristin Davis and Jeff Schogol, Military Times
Two lawmakers introduced a bill Tuesday that would eliminate a military commander's long-held authority to reverse a court-martial conviction, reduce a sentence or order a new trial.
Reps. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, put the legislation forward in response to a contentious Feb. 26 decision by an Air Force three-star general to overturn a sexual assault conviction of a lieutenant colonel at Aviano Air Base, Italy. Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force, said through a spokesman that he did not believe there was enough evidence to merit a guilty verdict in the case despite a recommendation by his staff judge advocate that the conviction stand.
Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., also added his support to the bill.
The Military Judicial Reform Act of 2013 comes a day after Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel wrote in a letter to two senators that he has ordered a review of the Aviano case and whether it is "necessary or appropriate" to continue to allow commanders to single-handedly toss aside judge and jury findings. The process has been a part of U.S. military justice since 1775. Commanders' decisions are final.
The Air Force Secretary and the Defense Department's general counsel will conduct the review to see whether the Uniform Code of Military Justice was "correctly applied" in the Aviano case, Pentagon spokesman George Little said today. Due by March 20, the review will also make recommendations on how Franklin's decision to overturn the sex assault conviction "could be more transparent," he said.
In the second review, which is due by March 27, the Defense Department's general counsel will look at Article 60 of the UCMJ, which gives the commander - also called the convening authority - the power to set aside or reduce convictions and sentences or to order a new trial.
"This authority is not necessary," Braley said during a news conference at the Capitol this afternoon.
The UCMJ already has an appeals process for service members convicted of a crime. Prior to launching an appeal, a military member can apply to the commander for clemency.
While governors and the president can similarly grant pardons, they must then answer to voters, Braley said. "Elected leaders are held accountable." Commanders, on the other hand, are not, he said.
"After consultation with the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force, the general counsel will provide an assessment of whether changes should be considered to Article 60, or in the services' implantation of Article 60, and if so, what changes should be considered," Little said.
If the reviews find that the military justice system did not work in the Wilkerson case, Hagel is committed to making "any and all necessary changes," he said.
"Our service members must know that they are protected from criminal assault by a system of laws that function promptly, fairly and justly," Little said. "The secretary is committed to doing everything he can to prevent sexual assault in the military and this department will be taking further action in the months to come."