Senators aim to strip commanders’ control over sex assault cases

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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. Stars and Stripes
From Stripes.com
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. Stars and Stripes

Senators aim to strip commanders’ control over sex assault cases

by: Travis J. Tritten | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: May 24, 2016
 WASHINGTON — A group of senators led by New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand will make another attempt this week to strip military commanders of the power to decide whether sexual assault cases are prosecuted.
 
Gillibrand said Monday that she will propose an amendment to the annual defense policy bill that instead gives independent military prosecutors authority over taking the cases to courts-martial. The Senate was set to debate and pass the bill, called the National Defense Authorization Act, before Friday.
 
Proponents, who include Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, say command influence has led to unfair treatment of sex assault victims and light punishments for perpetrators, but attempts to pass the changes have failed – by slim margins – for the past two years in the Senate.
 
This time, Gillibrand will be armed with a new report that she released Monday that investigated 329 sexual assault cases from four of the largest military installations and found a “troubling command culture” that appears to favor closing cases rather than prosecuting the accused.
 
“The facts continue to show that the reforms Congress has passed to date aren’t enough and it’s time to instead put decision-making power into the hands of non-biased, professionally trained, military prosecutors,” Gillibrand said in a released statement.
 
The Defense Department has claimed commanders need what it calls convening authority in order to effectively crack down on sexual assaults, which are an admitted epidemic the services have struggled to control. But Gillibrand’s report found the accused are rarely put on trial and that punishments can be light.
 
“Instead of pursuing justice, it appears that in many cases, commanders do the exact opposite and use their powers to dispose of these troubling cases outside of a courtroom,” according to the report on case files from 2014 that were turned over by the department.
 
In one case, a victim reported being sexually assaulted by his former company commander and an investigation found probable cause that the officer committed sodomy and cruelty to his subordinate, but the incident resulted in non-judicial punishment and the accused officer received only a written reprimand, the report found.
 
Victim advocates have backed Gillibrand’s proposal and were also set to rally Tuesday.
 
The group Protect Our Defenders, whistleblowers and assault survivors plan to deliver an online petition with more than 108,000 signatures calling on President Barack Obama to support the changes to the military justice system.
 
The petition also alleges the Pentagon has misled Congress with “bogus data.” In April, Gillibrand and Grassley asked Obama for an independent investigation into whether retired Adm. Sandy Winnefeld, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, might have inaccurately characterized and omitted information about such assault cases while testifying under oath in 2013.
 
But as political pressure mounts, it remains uncertain whether Gillibrand’s legislation has a real shot at passing.
 
The senator attempted to add the changes to last year’s NDAA. But the June vote was 50-49 and the amendment failed to draw the 60 supporters needed to become part of the massive policy bill.
 
In 2014, the legislation fell five votes short of the total needed to overcome a Senate filibuster.
 
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten