Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin (Air Force)
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An advocacy group for victims of military sexual assault appealed to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in an open letter today to fire the commander who overturned a sexual assault conviction at Aviano Air Base, Italy, earlier this year.
Protect Our Defenders president Nancy Parrish wrote Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin "destroyed the facade that commanders can be trusted to do what is right" and should be removed from his command of the Third Air Force.
Franklin dismissed a guilty verdict handed down by a jury of officers in the case of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, an F-16 pilot and former inspector general at Aviano. A house guest accused Wilkerson of getting into bed with her and touching her sexually while she slept a year ago. Wilkerson has repeatedly denied the charge.
Franklin's action amounted to an acquittal. Wilkerson has since been reinstated in the military and is assigned to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., as chief of flight safety for the 12th Air Force.
Protect Our Defenders also sent Hagel a point-by-point rebuttal to a memo in which Franklin lists 18 reasons for overriding Wilkerson's the conviction. The Air Force released the memo as well as a transcript of Wilkerson’s trial and other documents in March after lawmakers demanded to know more about the case.
Parrish accuses Franklin of using “failed and biased reasoning and unreliable information” to reach his decision.
In the six-page memo, Franklin said statements made by the accused and his wife, Beth Wilkerson, remained consistent throughout the investigation and court-martial while accounts by the alleged victim, Kimberly Hanks, changed. Franklin also said the path out of the house Hanks claimed to have taken was impossible and that she couldn’t correctly identify the bed in which claimed the assault occurred.
Parrish wrote that Franklin used a double standard when weighing the evidence. The commander explained away inconsistencies between the Wilkersons’ versions of events but said conflicting details given by Hanks meant she was lying, she wrote. Similarly, the commander put significant weight on how the Wilkersons conducted themselves after the alleged assault – witnesses said the couple’s behavior didn’t change – but disregarded testimony describing Hanks as shaken and teary, according to Protect Our Defenders.
Franklin's “pathetic excuses and sophomoric logic leave no doubt that he did nothing more than protect a fellow pilot,” Parrish wrote. “His naďve belief that senior officers cannot commit crimes is Exhibit A regarding what is wrong with commanders in charge of prosecuting sexual offenders.”
Democratic and Republican lawmakers in both the House and Senate have voiced support for stripping commanders of the long-held authority to overturn a verdict, which dates to a time when military members had no other avenue of appeal.
Hagel has recommended to Congress removing the power of convening authorities to overturn convictions for major offenses and provide a written explanation when reducing a sentence. The proposal is similar to a bill being proposed by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.