Military Sexual-Assault Verdicts Revive Debate on Hill

Critics said the cases underscore the need for further reforms.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY attends a press conference calling for the creation of an independent military justice system to deal with sexual harassment and assault in the military, in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on February 6, 2014. 
National Journal
Jordain Carney
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Jordain Carney
March 21, 2014, 10:24 a.m.

Con­tro­ver­sial de­cisions in two sep­ar­ate cases this week re­ignited the sexu­al-as­sault battle on Cap­it­ol Hill.

In the first closely watched case, a mil­it­ary judge on Thursday rep­rim­anded Brig. Gen. Jef­frey Sin­clair and ordered him to give up $20,000 in pay after ad­mit­ting to adul­tery — with a wo­men he su­per­vised — as well as in­ap­pro­pri­ate re­la­tion­ships with two oth­er wo­men. Sin­clair will serve no pris­on time, and the fi­nal res­ult is a far cry from sexu­al-as­sault charges that were dropped and could have res­ul­ted in a life sen­tence.

A mil­it­ary judge also found Joshua Tate, a former Nav­al Academy foot­ball play­er, not guilty of sexu­al as­sault on Thursday. Tate has agreed to resign from the academy, but many were not sat­is­fied with his pun­ish­ment.

The Pentagon has been un­der a bar­rage of cri­ti­cism from out­side groups, mem­bers of Con­gress, and at times even it­self over its hand­ling of mil­it­ary sexu­al-as­sault cases.

But Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s press sec­ret­ary, said the back-to-back rul­ings hadn’t changed Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel’s be­lief that the chain of com­mand should be in­cluded in de­cid­ing wheth­er a case is pro­sec­uted.

“There are plenty of oth­er cases that go all the way to tri­al and get con­vic­tions,” Kirby said. “And look, pro­sec­u­tions and con­vic­tions, while im­port­ant in terms of hold­ing people ac­count­able, that’s not the ul­ti­mate goal here. The ul­ti­mate goal here is zero sexu­al as­saults in the mil­it­ary.”

Pentagon of­fi­cials have widely cri­ti­cized a bill by Sen. Kirsten Gil­librand to re­move com­mand­ers from that pro­cess. The New York Demo­crat failed to over­come a pro­ced­ur­al vote 55-45, but she has vowed to try again dur­ing the months-long pro­cess of ham­mer­ing out the an­nu­al de­fense bill.

And Gil­librand said the Sin­clair de­cision un­der­lines why her le­gis­la­tion is needed.

“It’s not only the right thing to do for our men and wo­men in uni­form, but would also mit­ig­ate is­sues of un­due com­mand in­flu­ence that we have seen in many tri­als over the last year,” she said.

Nancy Par­rish, the pres­id­ent of Pro­tect Our De­fend­ers, backed the sen­at­or’s ef­forts, call­ing the Sin­clair case “a clear ex­ample of why nine out of 10 sexu­al-as­sault vic­tims nev­er re­port their at­tacks.”¦ This case demon­strates how high-rank­ing bad, ab­us­ive, and even un­law­ful be­ha­vi­or is tol­er­ated. The level of tol­er­ance is too of­ten dic­tated by the num­ber of stars you have on your shoulders.”

But Sarah Feld­man, spokes­wo­man for Sen. Claire Mc­Caskill — whose sexu­al-as­sault le­gis­la­tion passed the Sen­ate earli­er this month — said that while the Sin­clair case is “ob­vi­ously a com­plic­ated one,” it also proves that “com­mand­ers are of­ten more ag­gress­ive than pro­sec­utors in pur­su­ing pro­sec­u­tions and vet­ting these cases.”

The sen­at­or’s of­fice has ar­gued that if the case had been handled by pro­sec­utors alone, the rape charge would not have been brought for­ward.

And al­though Rep. Mike Turn­er, the co­chair of the Mil­it­ary Sexu­al As­sault Pre­ven­tion Caucus, doesn’t back Gil­librand’s le­gis­la­tion, the Ohio Re­pub­lic­an said he is “deeply dis­ap­poin­ted” and that the Sin­clair case is an ex­ample of why an in­crease is needed for man­dat­ory min­im­um sen­tences in sexu­al-as­sault and sexu­al-mis­con­duct cases. 

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