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'All for nothing': The military, sexual assault, and the search for justice

The epidemic of rape in the military may have finally reached a turning point with the case of Lt. Colonel James Wilkerson.

The epidemic of rape in the military may have finally reached a turning point with the case of Lt. Colonel James Wilkerson. After being convicted by a military jury last November of aggravated sexual assault, and sentenced to a year in jail, Wilkerson was set free by Lt. General Craig Franklin, who dismissed the case using power granted to commanders in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

"My heart is beating fast right now,  I am so upset with this," said Sen. Claire McCaskill at an Armed Services Committee Budget hearing last week.  "The victim in this case wasn't a member of our military. I question now whether that unit that [Wilkerson] returns to, whether there's any chance that a woman who's sexually assaulted in that unit would ever say a word, because what that general just said is thatjury's decision didn't matter."

Before being released by Lt. Gen. Franklin's pardon, Wilkerson faced a year in jail, forfeiture of all pay, and dismissal from the service after being tried and convicted of  "aggravated sexual assault" at Aviano Air Base in northeastern Italy. After the trial, Wilkerson petitioned Franklin for clemency per the military's unique post-trial review process, a process which rarely ends up overturning such cases. According to Stars and Stripes, the petition included "scores of letters from Wilkerson supporters" defending the convicted fighter pilot.

Franklin eventually dismissed the case in February, but gave no specifics as to why. A written statement from the Third Air Force simply said Lt. Gen. Franklin had  “concluded that the entire body of evidence was insufficient to meet the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

“I was assaulted. I reported it. I endured the public humiliation and the end result is that it was all for nothing,” said Wilkerson's accuser in a statement.

As troubled by this outcome as McCaskill, Sens. Barbara Boxer and Jeanne Shaheen wrote a letter to newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel last week, asking him to review Lt. Gen. Franklin's decision. They also inquired as to whether he, as Defense Secretary, had the power to overturn the case's dismissal.

The answer to the second question was no; under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), action by the convening authority--in this case, Lt. Gen. Franklin--is final. As for the case review, Hagel wrote in his March 7th response to Boxer and Shaheen that he had "directed the Secretary of the Air Force, in coordination with the Acting General Counsel of the Department of Defense, to review this case to assess whether all aspects of the UCMJ were followed." Hagel went on to say that the

"case does raise a significant question whether it is necessary or appropriate to place the convening authority in the position of having the responsibility to review the findings and sentence of a court-martial, particularly prior to the robust appellate process made available by the UCMJ."

On Tuesday, California Rep. Jackie Speier introduced legislation--the Military Judicial Reform Act-- to take away a commander's power to overturn court martial convictions and sentences. The bill seeks “to right an egregious wrong in our military justice system,” Speier said at a press conference Tuesday. “The military justice system is rigged in favor of the assailant.”

Speier's legislation was introduced in response to the case at Aviano Air Base, but the topic of sexual assault in the military has gained more attention in recent months after the Oscar-nominated documentary "The Invisible War" highlighted the severity of the problem. On Wednesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Personnel will hold a hearing on the issue. The hearing comes as the six-member subcommittee is for the first time composed of an equal number of men and women.

Wednesday's hearing will be held by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who was one of two senators to question Hagel on the problem of rape in the military at his confirmation hearings in January--the other being Sen. Richard Blumenthal. They asked for Hagel's commitment to prosecute individuals involved in this kind of criminal conduct, and for his commitment to the victims.

msnbc's Lawrence O'Donnell called these questions the most important of the hearing on The Last Word in January.

"The Secretary of Defense has absolutely no voice on his country's policy on Israel...Even on military deployment issues and military budgets, the Secretary of Defense is merely one of the many voices the president will hear when the president makes decisions about our tactical military choices in Afghanistan and elsewhere...But the Defense Secretary does have sole jurisdiction over how to handle what is now an absolutely out-of-control crime wave in the United States military for thousands of American soldiers; the military has become a rape club."