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SecDef: End commander authority to overturn court-martial convictions

Apr. 8, 2013 - 03:30PM   |  
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks April 3 at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. Hagel is recommending that Congress end the convening authority's ability to overturn a military jury's verdict.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks April 3 at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. Hagel is recommending that Congress end the convening authority's ability to overturn a military jury's verdict. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)
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Under a change being proposed from the Defense Department to Congress, convening authorities would no longer be able to change verdicts for major offenses, but they would still be able to reduce sentences, senior defense officials said on Monday.

That means that while convening authorities could not overturn a guilty conviction, they could reduce a conviction for sex assault to time served, the officials said at a news briefing.

The recommendation comes as a result of a review into Article 60 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice prompted by a three-star general's decision to throw out the sex assault conviction against Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, an Air Force pilot and former inspector general at Aviano Air Base, Italy.

A separate review into the Wilkerson case found that the convening authority, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, was within his authority under the UCMJ to set aside the military jury's conviction of Wilkerson, a senior defense official said.

Plea bargain agreements require convening authorities to retain the ability to reduce sentences, the officials said. The convening authorities would have to document in writing the reasons for their decision.

Although convening authorities still have the ability to free someone convicted of sexual assault, the conviction itself would stay with that person, one official said.

Convening authorities would still be able to overturn verdicts for “minor offenses that would not ordinarily warrant trial by court-martial,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement.

“These changes, if enacted by Congress, would help ensure that our military justice system works fairly, ensures due process, and is accountable,” Hagel said. ”These changes would increase the confidence of service members and the public that the military justice system will do justice in every case. The changes have the full support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the service secretaries.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., applauded Hagel's decision to seek changes to the UCMJ.

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“I am encouraged Secretary Hagel has acknowledged the need to reform the military justice system and has reaffirmed his commitment to ending sexual assault in the military,” Shaheen said in a statement.. “I look forward to working with the Pentagon to implement much needed legislative reforms to the Uniform Code of Military Justice and to address sexual assault in the military.”

But Nancy Parrish, president of the group Protect Our Defenders, said the proposed changes to the UCMJ do not go far enough.

“We have always contended that the more insidious problem is that convening authorities can unilaterally lessen sentences and today's announcement does not change this,” Parrish said in a statement. “Commanders now have the power to reduce any sentence for any reason or no reason. Under the current proposal of retaining clemency, this will not change.

“For the system to be legitimate — the reporting, investigation and adjudication must be taken completely out of the chain of command if we are to avoid another case like Aviano or the ongoing sexual abuse scandal at Lackland Air Force Base.”

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