WASHINGTON — The Air Force officer whose overturned sexual assault conviction helped fuel a growing movement to change the way the military prosecutes sex crimes is retiring, the Air Force said Wednesday. Whether Lt. Col. James Wilkerson will be allowed to collect military retirement pay at his current rank is in question, however. Air Force Spokeswoman Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley said Wednesday that a personnel board at Joint Base Andrews was in the process of conducting an officer grade determination that would set the 20-year Air Force veteran’s retiring rank. The review will examine whether Wilkerson honorably performed his duties, Tingley said. The story was first reported Wednesday in the Air Force Times. Tingley said that Gen. Mike Hostage, commander of Air Combat Command, recently issued Wilkerson a notice of show-cause letter, giving him the option of demonstrating why he should remain in the Air Force or retiring.
Wilkerson, a fighter pilot who was based at Aviano Air Force Base, Italy, was accused last year by a 49-year-old physician’s assistant of groping her breasts and genitals while she slept in a guest bedroom at Wilkerson’s home after a party. He was convicted in November of aggravated sexual assault after a week-long trial, and sentenced to dismissal, pay forfeiture and a year in jail. But in February, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force, overturned the conviction and reinstated Wilkerson. That decision, which came at a time of growing concern that the military was doing too little to rein in sexual assault, fueled a movement by federal legislators to strip commanders of the ability to decide whether alleged crimes by their subordinates go to trial. Although Defense Department leaders have lined up against legislation that would give prosecution decisions to independent military attorneys, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in April proposed changing the Uniform Code of Military Justice to remove commanders’ authority to overturn convictions. In June, after Stars and Stripes broke the story, the Air Force confirmed that Wilkerson had previously engaged in an extramarital affair that resulted in the birth of a child. Wilkerson was a major at the time of the affair, but Tingley said she could not comment on whether the review board might determine that as a result of his misconduct as a major, Wilkerson might be retired at the rank of captain.