Military back in political debate

Sex cases show system deficient, both sides say

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WASHINGTON -- Two highly publicized military sexual assault cases this week appear to strengthen the argument of those who want to take such cases out of the hands of military commanders -- but not only for the reason widely debated in Congress, which is that the military hierarchy is unfair to women.

Instead, critics say, the slap on the wrist for Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, accused of sexually mistreating a subordinate, and the not-guilty verdict for a former U.S. Naval Academy football player accused of sexual assault, Joshua Tate, reflect a military command that bowed to political pressure and brought bad cases to trial.

The end of both trials Thursday, less than two hours apart, abruptly shoved the contentious military justice question back into the political debate. More significantly, the outcomes left lawyers for accusers and the accused sharply criticizing the military's legal system from opposite directions, but arriving at the same conclusion: Justice was subverted, and sexual assault cases should be prosecuted by trained military lawyers, not commanders who have inherent conflicts of interest.

From the point of view of the two accused men, military commanders under political pressure to stop sexual assault within their ranks overreacted and pushed questionable cases to trial -- and failed to heed the advice of lawyers who spotted red flags that could derail prosecutors.

That is the same conclusion reached by advocates for sexual assault victims. But from their point of view, military commanders with careers at risk because of the stigma of sexual assault charges within their ranks treat female accusers unfairly and often suppress victims from fully reporting.

Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who failed to push a bill through Congress that would have removed military commanders from sexual assault prosecutions, has said it is "like your brother committing the sexual assault and having your father decide whether to prosecute."

The result of the two cases means that even fewer assault victims will report cases, critics say. "No one has any confidence in the system after a case like this," Ms. Gillibrand said in an interview, referring to the Sinclair case. "Prosecution has to be unbiased and can't be based on politics. It should be based on, 'Was a crime committed?' " She said she still believed that Sinclair had committed a crime, and called it "infuriating that justice wasn't served."


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