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Editorial: Justice can't be secret

Jul. 31, 2013 - 11:24AM   |  
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The Navy posted six months' worth of court-martial verdicts to its homepage July 22 and the Marine Corps followed suit two days later. Both pledge to update their lists regularly.

The Navy posted six months' worth of court-martial verdicts to its homepage July 22 and the Marine Corps followed suit two days later. Both pledge to update their lists regularly.

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The Navy posted six months’ worth of court-martial verdicts to its homepage July 22 and the Marine Corps followed suit two days later. Both pledge to update their lists regularly.

Both lists, spanning January to June, include brief details of each case, the verdict and ranks of those accused. The Marine Corps list included names; the Navy later added names, but only of those convicted.

Born of the military’s ongoing efforts to halt its sexual assault epidemic and hold service members accountable, this is a significant and positive step that the Army and Air Force should emulate. But it’s only a start. More must be done to bring transparency to a military justice system that too often puts protecting the reputation of the service ahead of the rights of victims or the accused.

Shrouded in secrecy, the military justice system routinely withholds court dates, charge sheets and trial transcripts from the media and the public, sometimes undermining the rights of the accused to a fair public trial.

Some recent examples:

■ It took the Air Force 14 months to comply with multiple requests for records from the trial of an airman sentenced in February 2012 to life in prison for the murder of a fellow airman at Kadena Air Base, Japan. An Air Force Times reporter had to appeal denials all the way up to the Air Force secretary’s office — not for an open investigation, but for the trial record of a convicted killer. The Air Force provided no viable explanation for the delay.

■ A staff sergeant in the Marine Corps pleaded guilty July 8 to two assault charges related to a hazing incident at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, S.C. A second Marine still faces hazing-related charges for the same incidents. While a Beaufort spokesman claims “hazing will not be tolerated,” the Marine Corps has failed to provide any additional details or context about the alleged hazing to Marine Corps Times.

■ Army Pacific Command posts results of courts-martial, but when asked to provide more details on two child abuse cases, it took weeks to respond. Once provided, the reports included minimal information.

■ A recruit division commander at Naval Station Great Lakes, Ill., convicted in a 2012 court-martial on multiple counts of sexual assault against female recruits, is now in prison, but Naval Criminal Investigative Services denied a Freedom of Information Act request for the investigative report. The case is closed and the Navy says preventing sexual assault is the No. 1 issue in the service. So why hide the facts?

The services aren’t worried about protecting the reputations of convicted murderers and abusers. Nor are they all that worried about victims.

It’s really about the reputations of the services.

Military justice has taken a beating recently because of the military’s poor record in handling sex assault cases. Making justice more transparent to the public is one way to ensure that cases are handled properly, and that the guilty are truly held accountable.

Publishing the results of trials is just a first step. The services need to stop hiding the start dates of courts-martial and Article 32 hearings, and stop slow-walking responses to requests for records. An open and public system for publishing court dockets, along with automatic and routine responses to media and public requests for court documents, are essential to building trust and holding everyone — including investigators and military justice officials — accountable.

What’s needed is an accessible system to track all courts-martial, across all services. Include dates, verdicts, charge summaries — and names.

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