Our view

Military justice system still needs reform

March 24, 2014 

  • In summary

    Case against general was flawed, but sentence seems like little more than a slap on the wrist.

The botched sexual-assault trial of Brig. Gen Jeffrey Sinclair may not be the perfect example of why the system of military justice needs to be reformed. Nonetheless, the result illustrates many of the problems associated with the current system.

Sinclair was charged with ordering a female captain under his command, with whom he carried on a three-year extramarital affair, to perform sexual acts against her will. The charges could have meant life in prison for Sinclair.

Ultimately, though, he pleaded guilty to adultery with the captain and inappropriate relationships with two other women by asking them for nude pictures and exchanging sexually explicit emails. Adultery is a crime in the military.

Under the plea bargain, Sinclair was reprimanded and given a $20,000 fine. He will voluntarily leave the military but his pension and retirement benefits will not be reduced.

Critics called it a shockingly light sentence. U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., called it “another sordid example of how truly broken the military justice system is.”

But the case was problematic from the beginning. The victim apparently lied about a key piece of evidence, and the lead prosecutor resigned from the case in February, saying he had doubts about the victim’s credibility.

To further weaken the case against Sinclair, prosecutors exchanged a series of emails discussing the outside political pressure to reject a plea bargain and proceed with the case. After reviewing the emails, the judge dismissed the jury and told prosecutors to work out a plea deal with the defense.

This was far from a model case. Nonetheless, the resulting slap on the wrist for Sinclair seems painfully inadequate.

The Pentagon estimates that as many as 26,000 service members may have been sexually assaulted in 2012 based on an anonymous survey. It is possible that the number is even higher.

Perhaps even more shocking is the number of predators responsible for those attacks who have gone unpunished.

Constructive changes in the system have occurred. Commanders used to have the authority to override jury verdicts, but last year Congress removed that authority. And when a commander decides not to pursue a case, a review by a civilian panel now is required.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has been pushing a bill that would take away any authority commanders now have in deciding whether to prosecute sexual assault cases and turn it over to military lawyers outside the chain of command. In essence, this would give victims in the military the same rights as those in civilian life to a fair and unbiased hearing of their cases – without the influence of an officer who might also command the suspect in the case.

Gillibrand’s bill failed to overcome a Senate filibuster by five votes earlier this month. But an alternative bill sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., that retains the authority of commanders to decide whether to prosecute but gives the civilian secretary of a military service the power to override the commander when the prosecutor wants to proceed, passed 97-0.

That is progress of sorts. Still, these cases should be handled entirely outside the command chain by military attorneys who would not be influenced by a ranking officer.

Gillibrand plans to reintroduce her bill in late spring during debate on other defense bills. And a similar bill is pending in the House.

We hope her bill will pass this time around. The military still has a huge problem with sexual assaults, and it needs a better system to deal with it.

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