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Lawmakers push to overhaul military justice system after sexual assault ruling reversed

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March 13, 2013: Senate subcommittee on Personnel Chair Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., right greets members of a panel before they testified on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP)

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are pushing to overhaul the military justice system -- and the Pentagon has pledged to review it -- following a general's decision to dismiss charges against an Air Force officer found guilty of sexual assault. 

The commander's decision spurred outrage on Capitol Hill and drew attention to a unique military policy that allows commanding officers to dismiss court-martial convictions with which they disagree. A Senate subcommittee convened a hearing on the matter Wednesday, as fresh bills were introduced in the House and Senate to curb or revoke commanders' power. 

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who presided over the hearing Wednesday, criticized an "environment that enables sexual assault." 

"Some of these victims have to fight all over again with every ounce of their being just to have their voice heard" and their assailants brought to justice, she said. 

The committee's hearing comes after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered a review of the Air Force case, and after the Pentagon announced Tuesday that it was reviewing the military policy that gives commanding officers the discretion authority. 

"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," spokesman George Little said. 

Lawmakers welcomed the decision, but nevertheless are pursuing legislation to mandate a change. 

Reps. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, and Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., introduced legislation Tuesday in the House of Representatives that would strip military commanders of the power to overturn legal decisions or lessen sentences handed down by court-martial judges and juries. 

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., also introduced a bill to revoke the ability to nullify decisions and require commanders to justify any move to commute or lessen a sentence following a court-martial guilty verdict. 

The case sparking outrage was Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin's decision to overturn the sexual assault conviction against Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy. 

Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy, was found guilty on Nov. 2 by a jury of military officers on charges of abusive sexual contact, aggravated sexual assault and three instances of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. The victim was a civilian employee. Wilkerson was sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the service. 

Wilkerson was at the U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C., until Feb. 26 when Franklin exercised his discretion as the convening authority. Franklin, reviewed the case over a three-week period and concluded "that the entire body of evidence was insufficient to meet the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt," Hagel wrote in a March 7 letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. 

But Hagel told Boxer neither he nor the Air Force secretary is empowered to overrule Franklin, who is the commander of the 3rd Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. 

Boxer said during testimony before Wednesday that "immediate steps must be taken to prevent senior commanders from having the ability to unilaterally overturn a decision or sentence by a military court." 

The subcommittee also is scrutinizing the military's handling of other sexual assault cases. Rebekah Havrilla, a former Army sergeant, told the panel that she encountered a "broken" military criminal justice system after she was raped by another service member while serving in Afghanistan. Havrilla described suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and how her case was eventually closed after senior commanders decided not to pursue charges. 

"What we need is a military with a fair and impartial criminal justice system, one that is run by professional and legal experts, not unit commanders," Havrilla said. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Wednesday that sexual assault in the ranks harms unit cohesion. "They are destroying the unit's effectiveness. They are the bad guy," he said of assailants. 

Graham also said that any changes to the system need to ensure that those who are wrongfully accused have options. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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