Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin — the Third Air Force commander whose decision to overturn a sex assault conviction a year ago sparked widespread changes to the military justice system — announced his retirement Jan. 8 following months of public criticism.
“In the last 10 months as the Commander of Third Air Force and 17th Expeditionary Air Force, my judgment has been questioned publicly regarding my decisions as a general court martial convening authority,” Franklin said in a statement. “This is a distraction for the Air Force and for my role as a general court martial convening authority.”
“The last thing I want in this command, is for people to feel they cannot bring a sexual assault case forward or feel it won’t be dealt with fairly. In addition, public scrutiny will likely occur on every subsequent case I deal with. I am concerned this could jeopardize the privacy of both the victim and the accused,” the statement continued.
Franklin incurred the wrath of lawmakers, who questioned how the military justice system treats sexual assault victims, after he decided in February to overturn the conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, who was found guilty in November 2012 of sexually assaulting a woman at his home while stationed at Aviano Air Base, Italy.
Franklin came under fire again last month after Stars and Stripes reported the commander had dismissed charges against an airman first class accused of raping a female staff sergeant while stationed at Aviano. The Air Force took the extraordinary step of re-investigating the case after Franklin declined to prosecute.
Franklin’s last day as Third Air Force commander is Jan. 31. He said his decision to retire, at a yet unspecified date, came after “much consideration and discussion with my family.”
Some lawmakers and victim advocacy groups had called on Franklin to resign, and the Jan. 8 announcement issued in a flurry of statements from both.
“Military leadership supported Franklin for far too long. While he should have been removed a year ago, it is good to hear that they finally have done the right thing,” Protect Our Defenders president Nancy Parrish said.
The organization had asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and President Obama to take action against Franklin.
“Lt. Gen. Franklin’s decision to resign is the right one,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said in an email statement. “His handling of sexual assault cases is the best possible illustration of why civilian review, elimination of commanders’ ability to overturn convictions, and so many other protections are included in our recent defense bill.”
Gen. Frank Gorenc, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and U.S. Air Forces Africa, praised Franklin’s service, noting that his retirement is voluntary.
“This is his personal decision [to retire] and I regrettably support it,” Gorenc said. “Craig is an honorable man and I thank him for his selfless commitment to the country for over three decades, including nearly a decade focused on furthering U.S. objectives and fulfilling national commitments in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.”
Franklin entered military service as an Air Force Academy cadet in 1977. Prior to taking command of the Third Air Force in March 2012, Franklin was vice director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. He commanded the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, from July 2009 to November 2010, according to Franklin’s Air Force biography.
“I fully respect his decision and the difficult circumstances under which he made it,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said in a statement. “Craig has admirably served this country for more than 32 years in many key positions and at all levels of command. He and his wife Julie have committed themselves completely to the good of the Air Force and the nation. Betty and I offer our heartfelt gratitude for their sacrifice and dedication to service. We wish them huge success and happiness in the future.”
In the case that raised the ire of lawmakers and advocates, Wilkerson, an F-16 pilot and an inspector general at Aviano, was sentenced to a year in prison in November 2012 but was released just three months later when Franklin dismissed the conviction.
As convening authority, Franklin had the final say over the case.
He reviewed the case and a clemency package with dozens of letters supporting Wilkerson, and “declined to approve the conviction because he did not think that there was enough evidence to say that he was guilty,” Lt. Col. Paul Baldwin, a spokesman for U.S. Air Forces in Europe, said at the time.
Emails later released by the Air Force show that Franklin believed Wilkerson was innocent. “I am sleeping very well knowing I made the right call and that an innocent man is free,” he wrote in March.
Wilkerson was forced to retire Jan. 1 at the rank of major after the Air Force confirmed he had fathered a child with a woman he was having an extramarital affair with nine years before. Adultry is a crime in the military, but carries a five-year statute of limitations.
Franklin’s decision triggered lawmakers to introduce bipartisan legislation in both the House and Senate that would prevent military commanders from overturning a verdict handed down by a judge or jury or reduce a sentence without explanation.
“The Wilkerson case and Lt. Gen Franklin’s actions highlighted an egregious power within the chain of command that warranted change,” Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., said in an email statement. “It prompted a significant and historic reform to the military justice system, which is now the law of the land.”