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(Washington, DC) – U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) today welcomed a letter from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel responding to her concerns over the decision by the Air Force to overturn the sexual assault conviction of Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkerson. Senator Shaheen and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) wrote to Hagel last week calling for detailed information on the case and an immediate review of the authority of commanders to unilaterally dismiss charges against convicted offenders. In his letter, Hagel indicated that he has directed deputies to review the case in order to determine whether changes should be made to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), which governs military law.

“I was encouraged to receive a prompt response from Secretary Hagel acknowledging the magnitude of this case and reaffirming his commitment to ending sexual assault in our armed forces,” Shaheen said. “There is much work to be done in the fight against sexual abuse, and this case sets a potentially dangerous precedent that cases of sexual assault may not receive the attention they deserve. Victims must know they will receive support regardless of the circumstances. If the message we send to survivors is that their cases will be disregarded, fewer will report the crimes committed against them and the epidemic of sexual assault will persist and multiply.
“I am glad to know that Secretary Hagel shares my serious concerns and I look forward to working with him in the Senate Armed Services Committee to address this problem and bring offenders to justice.”

In the case in question, Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkerson was convicted of aggravated sexual assault by a jury of his peers after he allegedly groped a physician assistant as she slept in a guest bedroom of his home last March. Lt Col Wilkerson was sentenced to a year in jail and dismissal from the Air Force after a trial last November. However, in his post-trial review of the case, Third Air Force Commander Lieutenant General Craig Franklin overturned the jury verdict and cleared Wilkerson of all charges, allowing him to be reinstated in the Air Force.

In his letter to Shaheen, Secretary Hagel wrote, “I believe this case does raise a significant question whether it is necessary or appropriate to place the convening authority in the position of having the responsibility to review the findings and sentence of a court-martial, particularly prior to the robust appellate process made available by the UCMJ.

“I have directed the Secretary of the Air Force, in coordination with the Acting General Counsel of the Department of Defense, to review this case to assess whether all aspects of the UCMJ were followed, and, after consultation with the Secretaries of the Army and the Navy, to report to me on whether the case points to changes that should be considered in the UCMJ, or in the military services’ implementation of the UCMJ and, if so, what changes should be made.”

A copy of Secretary Hagel’s letter is available here. A hearing on sexual assault in the military will be held this Wednesday in the Senate Armed Services Committee, of which Shaheen is a member.

Shaheen has been a leader on addressing sexual assault in the military and has worked extensively to ensure that victims receive the support they deserve. This past year, Shaheen introduced the Shaheen Amendment to repeal a discriminatory policy in place for over three years preventing female service members from receiving the same health care coverage as the civilians they protect. The amendment, which brings the Department of Defense’s reproductive health care polices in line with federal standards, was signed into law last December.