WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will ask Congress to change military law so that commanders cannot overturn major convictions, the secretary announced in a written statement issued April 8.
Article 60 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice currently gives power to “convening authorities,” or commanders, to set aside a conviction or decrease punishment following a court-martial, although convening authorities cannot change a “not guilty” verdict or increase a sentence.
Under the secretary’s proposed changes, a convening authority would no longer have the authority to set aside a conviction for major offenses such as sexual assault. The accused will continue to have the right to appeal the conviction. Also, convening authorities would be required to explain in writing any changes made to the findings or sentences of a court-martial.
“These changes, if enacted by Congress, would help ensure that our military justice system works fairly, ensures due process and is accountable,” the secretary wrote in the statement. “These changes would increase the confidence of Service members and the public that the military justice system will do justice in every case.”
His proposal has the full support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the service secretaries, Hagel said. “I look forward to working with Congress on these proposals and others to improve accountability for these crimes,” he added.
Hagel ordered a review of Article 60 in March, after convening authority Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, the 3rd Air Force commander, overturned the sexual assault conviction of Air Force Lt. Col. James Wilkerson. Last year, a panel of military officers found Wilkerson guilty in court-martial proceedings at Aviano Air Base, Italy. The judge sentenced him to a year in prison and dismissal from the Air Force.
Franklin was the convening authority for the court-martial and reviewed the finished case and sentence. The general used his Article 60 authority to dismiss the charges against Wilkerson, who returned to service and was reassigned.
Defense officials speaking to reporters on background today said the proposed changes to Article 60 are not based on that case alone, but are part of a range of comprehensive actions the department has taken and will take related to sexual assault in the military.
Hagel acknowledged in his statement that despite the efforts of senior leaders throughout the department, the crime of sexual assault “is damaging this institution.”
Thousands of victims in DOD, both male and female, have seen their lives and careers upended by sexual assault, Hagel said.
“And that is unacceptable,” he said in his statement issued April 8. “The current situation should offend every single Service member and civilian who, like me, is proud of their association with the United States military.”
The secretary said he is reviewing other options to strengthen the department’s sexual assault prevention and response efforts, and he will announce his decisions soon.
“Consistent with the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, I will soon be naming individuals to sit on independent panels to review and assess the systems used to investigate, prosecute and adjudicate crimes involving sexual assault, and judicial proceedings of sexual assault cases,” Hagel said. “I will closely review their recommendations when complete.”
The secretary said he’s committed to taking steps that bring about tangible change and real results.
“Addressing the problem of sexual assault will remain a top priority for the department’s leaders for as long as this crime continues to hurt our people and weaken the force,” Hagel said.