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General who overturned sex assault conviction loses authority over new sex assault case

Dec. 18, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin
Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin (Air Force)
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The three-star general who overturned the sexual assault conviction of a lieutenant colonel earlier this year, setting off a fierce debate among military leaders and lawmakers over who should have authority over sexual assault cases, is once again the source of controversy after the Air Force took the extraordinary step of re-investigating a sexual assault case that he declined to prosecute.

Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of Third Air Force, made the decision after an Article 32 evidentiary hearing in early September. “Following an Article 32 hearing, the convening authority, the Third Air Force commander, dismissed charges against Airman First Class Brandon T. Wright, for an alleged rape, aggravated sexual contact, abusive sexual contact, sexual assault, and disorderly conduct against a female Air Force staff sergeant while stationed at Aviano Air Base, Italy,” the Air Force said in an email statement.

The case will now fall under the authority of Maj. Gen. Sharon K.G. Dunbar, commander of Air Force District Washington, who reviewed the case and tentatively set an Article 32 hearing next month at Joint Base Andrews, Md., the Air Force said.

On Sept. 6, the Acting Secretary of the Air Force, Eric Fanning, “decided to administratively attach Wright to Air Force District Washington, the service said. The commander is now the General Courts-Martial convening authority.

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the Air Force did not immediately respond to a request for information on this story.

Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for victims of military sexual assault, said Franklin’s decision to not pursue a court-martial shows his “flawed judgment.”

“For months we have called on the Secretary of Defense and the President to take action against Franklin. In this most recent case, Franklin, the Convening Authority, against the recommendation of the wing (base) commander and without even speaking to the victim, refused to allow the case to move forward to trial,” the group said in a release.

Franklin in February took the unusual step of overturning the conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson. A jury of four colonels and one lieutenant colonel found Wilkerson guilty in November 2012 of sexually assaulting a 49-year-old American physician assistant in his home at Aviano Air Base, Italy. Wilkerson, an F-16 pilot and an inspector general at Aviano, was sentenced to a year in prison.

As convening authority over Wilkerson’s case, Franklin decided to send Wilkerson’s case to court-martial, and he was responsible for validating the outcome. He reviewed the case and a clemency package with dozens of letters supporting Wilkerson, and “declined to approve the conviction because he did not think that there was enough evidence to say that he was guilty,” Lt. Col. Paul Baldwin, a spokesman for U.S. Air Forces in Europe, said at the time.

Wilkerson was immediately released from prison, reinstated in the Air Force and later assigned to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., as the 12th Air Force’s chief of flight safety.

Emails released by the Air Force show that Franklin believed Wilkerson was innocent. “I am sleeping very well knowing I made the right call and that an innocent man is free,” he wrote in a March email.

Franklin’s decision triggered lawmakers to introduce bipartisan legislation in both the House and Senate that would prevent military commanders from overturning a verdict handed down by a judge or jury or reduce a sentence without explanation.

In June, the Air Force said it had confirmed Wilkerson had fathered a child with a woman he was having an extramarital affair with nine years before, which is a crime in the military but carries a five-year statute of limitations.

After the Air Force confirmed the extramarital affair, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and two dozen other lawmakers demanded the lieutenant colonel’s discharge. The lawmakers also called for a grade determination to “assess whether Wilkerson should be demoted to his rank at the time of his first offense,” Speier said on the floor of the House July 10.

Wilkerson was a major at the time of the affair. The Air Force announced in October that the lieutenant colonel, whose name was removed from the colonel selection list after his conviction, will retire as a major Jan. 1.

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