Military Sexual-Assault Verdicts Revive Debate on Hill

Pentagon officials have widely criticized a bill by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to remove commanders from that process. Pentagon officials have widely criticized a bill by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to remove commanders from that process. J. Scott Applewhite/AP file photo

Controversial decisions in two separate cases this week reignited the sexual-assault battle on Capitol Hill.

In the first closely watched case, a military judge on Thursday reprimanded Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair and ordered him to give up $20,000 in pay after admitting to adultery—with a women he supervised—as well as inappropriate relationships with two other women. Sinclair will serve no prison time, and the final result is a far cry from sexual-assault charges that were dropped and could have resulted in a life sentence.

A military judge also found Joshua Tate, a former Naval Academy football player, not guilty of sexual assault on Thursday. Tate has agreed to resign from the academy, but many were not satisfied with his punishment.

The Pentagon has been under a barrage of criticism from outside groups, members of Congress, and at times even itself over its handling of military sexual-assault cases.

But Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon's press secretary, said the back-to-back rulings hadn't changed Secretary Chuck Hagel's belief that the chain of command should be included in deciding whether a case is prosecuted.

"There are plenty of other cases that go all the way to trial and get convictions," Kirby said. "And look, prosecutions and convictions, while important in terms of holding people accountable, that's not the ultimate goal here. The ultimate goal here is zero sexual assaults in the military."

Pentagon officials have widely criticized a bill by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to remove commanders from that process. The New York Democrat failed to overcome a procedural vote 55-45, but she has vowed to try again during the months-long process of hammering out the annual defense bill.

And Gillibrand said the Sinclair decision underlines why her legislation is needed.

"It's not only the right thing to do for our men and women in uniform, but would also mitigate issues of undue command influence that we have seen in many trials over the last year," she said.

Nancy Parrish, the president of Protect Our Defenders, backed the senator's efforts, calling the Sinclair case "a clear example of why nine out of 10 sexual-assault victims never report their attacks.… This case demonstrates how high-ranking bad, abusive, and even unlawful behavior is tolerated. The level of tolerance is too often dictated by the number of stars you have on your shoulders."

But Sarah Feldman, spokeswoman for Sen. Claire McCaskill—whose sexual-assault legislation passed the Senate earlier this month—said that while the Sinclair case is "obviously a complicated one," it also proves that "commanders are often more aggressive than prosecutors in pursuing prosecutions and vetting these cases."

The Missouri Democrat's office has argued that if the case had been handled by prosecutors alone, the rape charge would not have been brought forward.

And although Rep. Mike Turner, the cochair of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, doesn't back Gillibrand's legislation, the Ohio Republican said he is "deeply disappointed" and that the Sinclair case is an example of why an increase is needed for mandatory minimum sentences in sexual-assault and sexual-misconduct cases. 

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