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New job for officer with overturned conviction

Apr. 1, 2013 - 12:51PM   |  
Lt. Col. James Wilkerson will serve as the 12th Air Force's chief of flight safety.
Lt. Col. James Wilkerson will serve as the 12th Air Force's chief of flight safety. ()
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An Air Force lieutenant colonel whose conviction for sex assault was overturned by a three-star general has been assigned to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., officials said.

Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base, Italy, will serve as the 12th Air Force's chief of flight safety, said Mike Dickerson, a spokesman for the Air Force Personnel Center.

“The assignment was based upon his qualifications and the needs of the Air Force,” Dickerson said in an email.

The position requires a flight-rated officer, such as Wilkerson, said Capt. Justin Brockhoff, a spokesman for 12th Air Force

“The position does not currently rate any airmen,” Brockhoff said.

As chief of flight safety, Wilkerson's responsibilities will include managing the “programs relating to policies and procedures of flight safety” as well as determining the causes of aircraft accidents so they don't happen again, Brockhoff said.

“While we don't send our flight-safety officers out on the investigations, our safety office does help manage the boards and review their products and just help offer them guidance on how to proceed about a safety investigation,” he said.

In November, a jury sentenced Wilkerson to a year in prison and dismissal from the Air Force, but on Feb. 26, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin set aside the conviction, allowing Wilkerson to be freed from a South Carolina brig and return to active duty.

Franklin's decision led to an outcry from lawmakers, such as Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

“If this power, this amazing power that is given this one individual is about the good of the whole, it appears to me that the Aviano general has really failed," she said during a heated March 13 hearing with the Air Force's leading legal authority, Lt. Gen. Richard Harding, as well as top judge advocates general for the Army, Marines, Navy and Coast Guard. “I don't think anybody's going to argue that this decision has been terrible for the whole. This decision has turned the military on its ear as it relates to the criminal justice system that is contained therein.”

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Harding defended a commander's power to uphold or overturn a conviction during the hearing, saying it is essential to military order. “A convening authority's ability to exercise some accountability on every aspect of an [airman's] … behavior is incredibly important, creating a responsive, disciplined force,” Harding said.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered two separate reviews: one into the Wilkerson case and another into the article of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that allows convening authorities to set aside convictions from military juries.

On Monday, the president of a group that supports service members who have been sexually assaulted issued an angry statement urging Hagel to launch an investigation into Wilkerson for conduct unbecoming an officer in connection with other incidents reported by the New York Times.

“Officers convicted of sexual assault have no place in our military,” said Nancy Parrish, of Protect Our Defenders. “They belong in jail, like civilian sex offenders.” Parrish called Franklin’s decision to set aside Wilkerson’s conviction a “national embarrassment” that shows the military justice system is broken.

“Lt. Gen. Franklin’s actions are a chilling reminder to victims of sexual assault, prosecutors, judges, and jury panels that military leadership often does not take sexual violence seriously,” she said. “Now is the time to institute real reforms to fix the broken military justice system and change the culture that blames the victims and frequently fails to punish perpetrators.”

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