The Air Force general who chose to overturn an officer's sexual assault conviction said accusations that his motivation was to protect a fellow fighter pilot are "preposterous."
The February decision ignited a firestorm on Capitol Hill and drew scrutiny to the separate set of laws governing military members, known as the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Following his review of the case, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this week proposed removing the convening authority from commanders in major cases.
Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the 3rd Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, who isn't a judge or an attorney, defended his decision in a six-page letter he submitted to the service in response to the uproar.
Accusations that he doesn't understand sexual assault or take the crime seriously "are complete and utter nonsense," he wrote. Allegations that his decision was influenced by his previous role commanding a unit the pilot later served in "are equally preposterous," he wrote.
Franklin took a rare step in explaining his decision, which isn't required under the military code. His letter, dated March 12, and other documents and videos from the case were recently posted online in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
In the letter, Franklin, who didn't attend the trial, says he struggled with the decision. However, after he reviewed the evidence, he found the defendant, Lt. Col. James Wilkerson III, and his wife, Beth, more credible than the alleged victim, Kimberly Hanks, who has since come forward publicly to discuss the matter.
Approving the jury's finding of guilt "would have been an act of cowardice," Franklin wrote. "I hold a genuine and reasonable doubt that Lt. Col. Wilkerson committed the crime," he wrote. "My court-martial action to disapprove findings and to dismiss the charges was the right, the just, and the only thing to do."
Wilkerson, then the inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy and a former F-16 pilot, was found guilty of multiple charges to include aggravated assault. He was sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the service before Franklin overturned the conviction.
Hanks accused him of fondling her breasts and genitalia as she slept in his guest bedroom, according to court documents. The two met at a club with groups of friends after a rock concert that was held on base, organized by the USO and featuring the alternative rock band, Seether, according to her testimony.
Hanks, a divorcee who worked as a civilian contractor in the medical clinic on base, didn't previously know Wilkerson but wound up at his home in Roverado, according to her testimony. Hanks said she awoke in a bedroom with Wilkerson when his wife entered the room, turned on the lights and said: "What the hell is going on?"
Hanks testified that the woman then ordered her to, "Get the hell out of my house."
In his letter, Franklin said he was persuaded in part by the many letters of clemency from family, friends and colleagues of the Wilkersons that "painted a consistent picture of a person who adored his wife and 9-year-old son, as well as a picture of a long-serving professional Air Force officer."
Franklin even makes a point to cast doubt on Wilkerson's failed polygraph test.
"A polygraph is only an investigative tool to assist in the potential focus of the investigation and/or to attempt to elicit admissions of guilt," he wrote. "It is not a ‘lie-detector test,' nor is it ‘pass' or ‘fail.' Because of the inherent unreliability of polygraphs, they are entirely inadmissible in a court-martial."
Lawmakers and supporters of sexual-assault victims were shocked by Franklin's letter.
"This explanation crystalizes exactly why the convening authority should not have the unilateral ability to overturn a jury verdict -- and why we need legislation that restricts their ability to do so," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said in a statement. "This letter is filled with selective reasoning and assumptions from someone with no legal training, and it's appalling that the reasoning spelled out in the letter served as the basis to overturn a jury verdict in this case."
In light of the case, McCaskill introduced legislation that would curtail the authority of military commanders to dismiss jury convictions against sex offenders.
Protect Our Defenders, a nonprofit based in Burlingame, Calif., called for Franklin to be dismissed from the military. "Lt. Gen. Franklin made a deeply flawed and inappropriate decision," the group's president, Nancy Parrish, said in a statement. "Rather than rely on the credibility determinations of the senior members of the jury he selected, Franklin chose to accept the word of Wilkerson's supporters."
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on April 8 said he would ask Congress to pass legislation that would prevent commanders from overturning convictions without explanation.
In 2011, less than half of the reported 3,200 sexual assaults in the military resulted in disciplinary action, according to the Defense Department. The number of actual sexual assaults each year is probably closer to 19,000, based on anonymous surveys of active-duty service members.
Wilkerson will remain on active duty and is being transferred to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., where he will become chief of flight safety for the 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern), according to Master Sgt. Kelly Ogden, a spokeswoman for the unit. He is expected to arrive later this month or in early May.