U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin threw out the conviction of F-16 fighter pilot Lt. Col. James Wilkerson on Feb. 26. In November 2012, an all-male jury at Aviano Air Base in Italy convicted Wilkerson of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced him to a year in prison.
Sexual assaults are not uncommon in the military, and Air Force officials themselves have called it a “cancer” plaguing the branch. The decision to grant Wilkerson clemency is offensive to other victims of sexual assault in the armed forces and is representative of a pervasive attitude whereby one’s military record is evidence enough to cast “reasonable doubt.”
Franklin is not a judge and didn’t even attend the trial, but as Wilkerson’s commanding officer he gets to have the final say in the court martial process. In the military judicial system, a commander of Franklin’s caliber has the authority to vacate a decision and does not have to give a reason.
The only justification Franklin gave was that there was “insufficient evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” While he may feel that way, the jury who convicted Wilkerson and the judge who sentenced him certainly saw the facts of the case differently.
Wilkerson is an officer and his evaluations have made him somewhat of a star within the Air Force. He flew missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and was most recently working as the inspector general at Aviano Air Base where his trial took place.
In the military judicial system, evidence of strong military character and good performance evaluations is often enough to create reasonable doubt.
“The defense says he’s a great officer. He wouldn’t do that. Good military character is not something you get to check. It’s constant,” chief prosecutor Col. Don Christensen said.
However decorated or lauded Wilkerson may be, that should always come second to the facts of the case.
Many senators have been verbally critical of this decision and the message it sends about the justice system within the Air Force.
“The appearances of this are devastating to victims of sexual assault throughout the military. It looks like somebody taking care of one of their guys,” Sen. Claire McCaskill said.
McCaskill brings up a good point. This is an illuminating example of the “good ol’ boy” system that’s alive and well, especially in the military.
Additionally, McCaskill wrote a letter to Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh in which she said, “I just think the system is messed up if a general can overturn a case like this with a stroke of a pen. That’s just offensive to anyone’s sense of justice.”
I agree with her. It must have been incredibly hard for Wilkerson’s accuser to come forward in the first place, especially since she is a civilian, and then even harder for her to recount the events to a military court. Now, the victim is surely left with an overwhelming sense of helplessness – what else can she do?
There is truly an inherent flaw in the system when a person can be convicted by a judge and jury and then have that conviction thrown out without even so much as an appeals process. I feel that Franklin’s decision to grant Wilkerson clemency ignores the reality of the situation and is insulting to everything our legal system is supposed to stand for.