WASHINGTON — A bipartisan Senate effort would shield victims of sexual assault in the military from intrusive questions at initial court appearances, Sen. Barbara Boxer announced Tuesday.
The issue concerns Article 32 proceedings, the rough equivalent of a grand jury in civilian courts for serious crimes such as sexual assault. Boxer’s measure, whose co-sponsors include Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., an Air Force reserve lawyer, would limit the hearings to determining whether there is probable cause that a crime was committed.
The proceedings now encourage “fishing expeditions” that can humiliate alleged victims of sexual assault, Boxer told a small group of reporters.
“There are no boundaries,” said Boxer, D-Calif.
The issue of sexual assault in the military seized public attention earlier this year after a Pentagon report showed a 30 percent spike in reports of unwanted sexual contact among troops from 2010 to 2012. Several high-profile sexual assault-related incidents coincided with the announcement, including an Air Force commander tossing out the rape conviction of a subordinate. Sexual assault in the ranks had become a “crisis,” according to top military brass.
Congress has intervened, calling the chiefs of the services to Capitol Hill to explain their response. In turn, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has started initiatives that include re-screening of military sexual assault counselors and victims advocates.
A proposal by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would remove decisions about the prosecution of sex crimes from military commanders and place them in the hands of trained military lawyers. Boxer supports the measure, but less comprehensive changes have the backing of Senate leaders.
“The current system is a disaster,” Boxer said.
Meantime, Boxer’s bill seeks to address the grand-jury like hearings that have also generated controversy. At an Article 32 hearing earlier this year regarding a sexual assault at the Naval Academy, a military defense lawyer called the alleged victim the “sexual aggressor.” Two of the accused Midshipmen were ordered to face courts-martial.
Boxer’s amendment would also allow victims to avoid public testimony. They could be allowed instead to offer sworn statements. The measure would also require the presiding officer of the hearing be an officer of equal or higher rank than the defense lawyer. Testimony would be recorded.
A similar bill will be introduced in the House.