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Top Prosecutor Leaves Air Force to Reform Military Justice System

The Air Force's chief prosecutor, Col. Don Christensen, is going to work for the sexual assault victim advocacy group Protect Our Defenders. (Courtesy Don Christensen)
The Air Force's chief prosecutor, Col. Don Christensen, is going to work for the sexual assault victim advocacy group Protect Our Defenders. (Courtesy Don Christensen)

One of the military's most highly regarded prosecutors is leaving the justice system he's served for more than two decades to work for a group devoted to reforming it.

Col. Don Christensen, formerly the Air Force's chief prosecutor, is retiring from the service in December and will become the president of Protect Our Defenders, an influential nonprofit that advocates for and supports military sexual assault victims and lobbies for military justice reform.

Changes are overdue to a system Christensen says enables perpetrators and punishes victims.

"I've seen how people in units rally around the accused," he said. "These are the future convening authorities.

"We need to professionalize the justice system. Make it similar to what the rest of the world does."

Christensen became well-acquainted with the advocacy group, also known as POD, after he won a conviction two years ago against Lt. Col. James Wilkerson on charges the F-16 pilot and 31st Fighter Wing inspector general at Aviano Air Base, Italy, had sexually assaulted a sleeping house guest. Then-Third Air Force commander Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin subsequently dismissed the case and reinstated Wilkerson into the force.

Franklin's action — reversing the verdict and sentence of a five-colonel jury — shocked and angered numerous victims' groups and U.S. lawmakers, who said it illustrated the bias confronting military victims of sexual crimes. The case led to a host of legislative changes to the military justice system, including the end of commanders' unfettered discretion to dismiss verdicts and reduce sentences.

Those moves were initially opposed by military officials, and they remain unpopular with some. On Monday, the Pentagon is due to report to President Barack Obama on progress the military has made since then to address sexual assault in the military.

"I feel like military justice has been hijacked by a number of female senators and congresswomen," said defense lawyer Frank Spinner, who represented Wilkerson.

But for many advocates for sexual assault victims, whose ranks now include Christensen, the changes haven't gone far enough.

After more than two decades working inside the system — as a defense lawyer, judge and prosecutor — Christensen says it remains deeply flawed.

"We need to bring balance to the system," he said. "We've shoveled all these rights onto the accused that don't appear anywhere else."

Under the military justice system, for instance, alleged victims can be ordered to give repeated interviews and depositions to the defense before trial. And unlike in the civilian court system, defendants can call supporters to provide "good character evidence" during the trial, which by itself can raise "reasonable doubt" for an acquittal.

Christensen said he'd decided to work for Protect Our Defenders because he considers the group focused and savvy. "When they advocate changes, they've actually thought through how the changes will affect the criminal justice system," he said. "I also know they're pro-military."

Still, he said, he expected his new career choice would be controversial. "I'll lose friends," he said. There are some people who are so hostile to anything anti-military-justice, they'll think I'm selling out."

Nancy Parrish, POD founder and former president, said she was "honored and humbled" that Christensen was coming on board.

"Col. Christensen knows the ins and outs of our military justice system," she said. "He has seen, up close and personal, the lack of justice victims too often receive in the military justice system, which puts a victim's fate in the hands of the rapists' boss rather than professional, legally trained experts."

At POD, Christensen will "fight to improve the military that he loves," Parrish said.

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