Newly released emails show the lengths to which a top Air Force officer went to help a fellow fighter pilot get a new assignment and advance in his career after overturning the pilot’s sex assault conviction.
The 330 pages of documents reveal how Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, Third Air Force commander, intervened on behalf of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, the former Aviano Air Base, Italy, inspector general, whom Franklin believed was wrongly convicted by a military jury in November of sexually assaulting a sleeping houseguest.
The dozens of emails also show Franklin was cautioned about the potential impact of granting clemency in the high-profile case. And they show Franklin had the support of the head of U.S. European Command, Gen. Philip Breedlove, who wrote to Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh that he could not “think of ANY Air Force officer who would have given this more personal effort than [Franklin]. I stand behind his decision.”
The emails, posted late last month to the Air Force Freedom of Information Act website, rekindled outcries from victim advocates and some lawmakers who say the exchanges by top brass show a biased military justice system in need of overhaul.
The exchanges “show the need to create unbiased system of justice in [the] military so victims of sexual assault get justice they deserve,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said in an Aug. 30 Twitter post.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., called the Wilkerson case “everything that’s wrong with the blind protection of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”
“The military says taking cases like these out of the chain of command will negatively impact morale,” Speier said in a statement. “I think it’s clear that the chain of command chose the future of one soldier over the integrity of the entire Air Force. Against any measure of better judgment, they thumbed their noses at the victim, her family and justice in general. This closed system of power is truly amazing in its arrogance.”
Franklin’s emails “reinforce the need for commanders to be completely stripped of their authority to overturn jury verdicts,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. said in a statement.
Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, said the documents illustrate current Pentagon reforms do little to ensure victims of sex assault are treated fairly.
“Breedlove’s comments prove that moving the decision [to prosecute these cases] farther up the chain of command does not equate with a more fair judicial process, but instead ensures more of the same,” she said.
On Feb. 26, Franklin tossed out the conviction of Wilkerson, who had been sentenced to a year in prison and a dismissal. Wilkerson was immediately released from a South Carolina brig and now serves as chief of flight safety at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.
Franklin’s interest in Wilkerson’s future following the conviction was immediate. When the lieuenant general was told Nov. 3 Wilkerson would be kicked out of the Air Force, Franklin sent this one-sentence reply: “Does he receive his retirement?” The name of the recipient is redacted.
“There are no winners here,” Franklin wrote in a Nov. 9 email. “I feel terrible for the Wilkerson family, the victim and our Air Force.”
The documents also show Franklin was convinced of Wilkerson’s innocence after his review of the case, which included nearly 100 clemency letters from friends, family and co-workers written on the convicted man’s behalf.
“I am sleeping very well knowing I made the right call and that an innocent man is free,” he wrote in a March email.
Franklin expressed frustration with the Air Force system when he learned the overturned conviction did not mean an automatic restoration of Wilkerson’s security clearance and promotion to colonel.
Wilkerson had been selected to pin on the rank of O-6 before he was accused of sex assault. He was removed from the promotions list in January, about a month before Franklin threw out the verdict.
Wilkerson would have to appeal to the Air Force Board for Corrections of Military Records to return to the promotions list, the three-star was told in one email.
Franklin called that process “insulting” to Wilkerson and his family “after all they have been through.” He asked whether he could make a request for correction to colonel on Wilkerson’s behalf.
“I will call the [Air Force Personnel Center] directly,” Franklin said in a Feb. 28 email.
The three-star was told by one official in an email that his personal intervention in the corrections board process would “certainly carry a lot of weight not only due to your rank, but that you also reviewed the entire case.”
Franklin offered to advise Wilkerson about his military career. “I would assure him he has a great future and his record is very competitive for” operations group commander, he wrote in one email.
Parrish, of Protect Our Defenders, said Franklin’s involvement was startling. “We can see what goes into this type of case, and it’s very disturbing,” she said. “We just saw the extreme lengths the military brass goes to protect each other’s backs. You see senior officers valuing their friends and senior officers. They believe the people they know and trust versus those they don’t. This is an old boy’s network rather than an independent, impartial and professional justice system.”
But Duke University law professor and retired Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap said such efforts by a commander would not be improper.
“If you come to the conclusion the person is innocent, then it would be unconscionable not to try to restore an innocent man to where he was before the accusation was made,” Dunlap said. “That’s without me approving of the factual decision [Franklin] made.”
By March 5, Wilkerson had decided to take the Third Air Force commander up on the offer to talk about his future in the Air Force. Three days later, Franklin canceled because of “schedule changes and all the media interest that my decision has generated,” according to an email he sent. He said any personal contact with Wilkerson could be “misconstrued.”
That same day, Franklin received an email with the subject line: “info: Wilkerson security clearance.” The name of the sender was redacted.
Wilkerson “wanted me to convey to you his promise that there is no adverse information to his knowledge outside the charges brought against him in court,” according to the message.
That turned out not to be true. The Air Force announced in June it had disciplined Wilkerson for an extramarital affair that resulted in a child with a woman other than his wife more than eight years earlier. The Air Force, which did not learn about the affair or the child until after Franklin’s reversal, said it could not say what action it took against Wilkerson or what ramifications it would have on his career.
It is unclear whether Franklin’s efforts to restore Wilerson’s security clearance have been successful. There also has been no announcement of promotion to colonel for Wilkerson.
Air Force leaders were aware, to some degree, of the potential ripple effects of dismissing the sex assault conviction, the emails show.
Breedlove wrote in a Feb. 26 email that he and Franklin had “discussed in depth the meaning and possible blow back.”
Welsh wrote in a March 12 email to Franklin: “It’s going to be a little uncomfortable for awhile. Hang in there.”
But an email from Brig. Gen. Scott Zobrist, commander of the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano at the time, would turn out to be most prophetic. A week before Franklin overturned the conviction, Zobrist cautioned that a dismissal of the verdict would “have a huge negative impact on morale, send a very negative message about how seriously we take sexual assault in the Air Force and potentially call into question the effectiveness of our UCMJ in general.”
The backlash was almost immediate. Franklin’s decision was rare — the Air Force could find only five sex assault cases in five years in which a commander exercised clemency authority — but it came at a time when the military was already under scrutiny for its handling of sex assaults.
Lawmakers have introduced bills that would make varying changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. One plan would move sex assault cases out of the chain of command entirely. All of the bills would strip a commander’s authority to overturn a jury’s guilty verdict in major crimes — a change supported by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. ■