PHOENIX – Protesters rallied outside a Tucson military base Thursday to denounce the Air Force's decision to transfer a lieutenant colonel to Arizona after his sexual assault conviction was overturned by a commander, adding to the growing criticism of the military justice system.
The 45-minute demonstration by about 50 people was led by outraged family members of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson's accuser. They questioned why the military would transfer Wilkerson to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base on the southern edge of Tucson, where roughly half the woman's family lives.
The protest came amid a congressional uproar over the Wilkerson case, and follows heavy criticism of the military's handling of another case involving sex-crime allegations in California.
"They could send him to a number of places," said Stephen Hanks, an orthopedic surgeon in Tucson who is the brother of Wilkerson's accuser. "Why send him to a place where her family lives? It makes no sense."
Hanks' sister, Kimberly Hanks, a civilian employee who works with service members, accused Wilkerson of sexually assaulting her after a March 2012 party at his house. Wilkerson and his wife denied the charges but said Kimberly Hanks stayed at their house that night.
A military jury in November convicted Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy, of aggravated sexual assault and other charges. He was sentenced to one year in prison and dismissal from the service.
But a commander overturned the verdict and dismissed the charges, saying he found Wilkerson and his wife more believable than the alleged victim. Wilkerson already has reported for duty in southern Arizona, where he will work as a safety officer for the 12th Air Force.
Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Brett Ashworth said military officials wouldn't have known about the woman's family in Tucson when Wilkerson's transfer was decided.
"His assignment was based on his qualifications and the needs of the Air Force," Ashworth said.
Wilkerson declined an interview request from The Associated Press.
Hanks told NBC News in mid-March that she was stunned to learn that the commander had overturned Wilkerson's conviction. "It looks to me like he is protecting one of his own," Hanks told NBC. Hanks isn't currently granting interviews.
The AP doesn't routinely identify people who say they were sexually assaulted. But an organization representing Hanks says she voluntarily made her name known to shed light on what the group calls the military's mishandling of sex assault cases.
The decision by Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the 3rd Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, to overturn the verdict also has been criticized by members of Congress, who demanded answers about the move from senior military leaders. The Defense Department this month proposed that commanders be largely stripped of their ability to reverse criminal convictions of service members.
Under military law, a commander who convenes a court martial is known as the convening authority and has the discretion to reduce or set aside guilty verdicts and sentences, or to reverse a jury's verdict.
Protect Our Defenders, which advocates for military members who have been sexually assaulted, is calling for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to fire Franklin. The group's president, Nancy Parrish, said the Wilkerson case demonstrates that the military justice system needs to be changed.
Commanders who have broad authority in letting cases go forward face a conflict of interest, Parrish said.
"They are incentivized to sweep these cases under the rug. A commander's career is on the chopping block if a rape happens under his or her watch," said Parrish, whose group is pressing the Defense Department on behalf of Wilkerson's accuser.
The military justice system also came under heavy criticism in February, after a former soldier killed two police officers in California.
Records show the Army commander of the former soldier, Jeremy Goulet, allowed Goulet to resign from the military instead of facing a court-martial when he was twice accused of rape. The Army said a lack of evidence prevented it from prosecuting Goulet on charges dating back to 2006.
Critics say Goulet's case is as an example of what can go wrong when military cases are dropped.
Goulet shot and killed two detectives when they went to his house to question him about allegations that he was sexually inappropriate with a former co-worker. Goulet died in the Feb. 26 shootout with police in Santa Cruz, Calif.
Ashworth declined to comment on the group's call for Franklin to be fired. Franklin declined an interview request from the AP.
In a letter to a Pentagon official that surfaced earlier this month, Franklin said a combination of details led to his decision, including that the victim turned down offers to be driven home from the party, didn't accurately describe the house layout and gave a version of events that he didn't find credible. He said Wilkerson was a doting father with a good career, and it would be "incongruent" for him to leave his wife in bed, go downstairs and assault a sleeping woman he'd met earlier that evening.
Protect Our Defenders issued a response to Franklin's letter Tuesday, saying Franklin's account of the woman's options for rides home was inaccurate, Franklin showed blind loyalty toward the accused officer, and that the jury found the woman's story credible.
Meanwhile, the military newspaper Stars and Stripes reported Thursday that the Air Force plans to launch an investigation into an allegation that Wilkerson had an extramarital affair in 2004 with another woman and fathered a child with her.
Adultery is a crime under military law.
"We are aware of the allegations, and we are looking into them," Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley told the AP, declining to say whether the Air Force's review is a formal investigation.
Capt. Justin Brockhoff, a spokesman for the 12th Air Force in Tucson, declined to comment on the new allegation against Wilkerson.
Frank Spinner, the civilian lawyer who represented Wilkerson in the sexual assault case, didn't immediately return a call Thursday seeking comment.