'I am Vanessa Guillén Act' Praised as Calls for Removing COs from Sexual Assault Prosecutions Mount

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Lt. Gen. Pat White greets Congresswoman Jackie Speier at Fort Hood.
Lt. Gen. Pat White greets Congresswoman Jackie Speier, the representative to California's 14th District, at the start of congressional delegation visit at Fort Hood, Texas, May 5, 2021. (U.S. Army/Sgt. Evan Ruchotzke)

Less than a month after the anniversary of 20-year-old Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén's disappearance, Reps. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., reintroduced the "I Am Vanessa Guillén Act" on May 13, reigniting calls to take prosecution authority away from military commanders.

The legislation proposes sweeping changes to the military's policies surrounding missing service members and reports of sexual harrassment and sexual assault. The act would make sexual harassment a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and move prosecution for sexual assault and harassment outside of the military chain of command.

Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., endorsed removing sexual assault prosecution authority from military commanders in a statement Sunday.

"Sexual assault and harassment are pervasive problems in the U.S. military and American culture, and we must take comprehensive action to halt sexual violence, hold violators accountable, and support survivors," Reed said.

Efforts to reform the sexual assault prosecution process are also central to the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. The bill has 62 cosponsors and would also bolster security at military installations and increase military sexual assault training and education.

Guillén was sexually harassed on two occasions, but her supervisor and other leaders did not take appropriate action, an Army report found. The Guillén family alleges that she was harassed by multiple soldiers before she was killed.

A Defense Department report on sexual assault found that, of 363 court-martial cases for sexual assault offenses that proceeded to trial, 264, or 73%, "resulted in a conviction of at least one charge at court-martial" during fiscal 2019.

Based on the most recent data in the report, though, an estimated 20,500 service members experienced sexual assault in the year prior to FY 2018. About 13,000 were women.

Of the 92 cases where nonjudicial punishment on a sexual assault offense "served as ground for a subsequent discharge" for service members, more than two-thirds, or 69.6%, were discharged under general or honorable conditions. Just under one-quarter, or 23.9%, of those eventually were discharged on a sexual assault offense were discharged under other than honorable conditions.

The bill has received bipartisan support from over 170 cosponsors.

Speier, who chairs the House Armed Services military personnel subcommittee, said in a news release, "We must send a message to all servicemembers about the nation's expectations for their conduct and the culture of the military.

"One year after the senseless murder of SPC Vanessa Guillén, and after two damning reviews, the need for fundamental reform of the military's approach to sexual assault and sexual harassment has never been more urgent," she added in the release. "Military leadership has had decades to solve this problem, yet continues to fail. Toxic command climates, rampant sexual violence, lack of accountability, and retaliation against survivors continue to worsen."

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., expressed her support for the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act during an event for the bill's reintroduction.

"Justice is needed for Vanessa and for the many service members facing an epidemic of sexual harassment and assault in our armed forces, too often in the shadows," Pelosi said. "Led by Jackie Speier, we will not stop until we pass the bill and until we finally, fully end this epidemic, in the military, in the workplace and in all places."

Rep. Troy Balderson, R-Ohio, took to Twitter to express his support of the act.

Mullin said Congress' response to sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military should be bipartisan.

Calls are mounting outside Congress to remove prosecution authority from commanders. But some, including Dave Schlueter, a law professor at St. Mary's University, and Lisa Schenck, an associate dean at the George Washington Law School, call such proposed changes "drastic" and "statistically unsubstantiated" in an op-ed in The Hill.

"Commanders, not lawyers, make the final decision because signaling to a unit that the commander, not lawyers, are in charge is critical during periods of training as well as combat," they wrote in the op-ed.

Retired Col. Don Christensen, former chief prosecutor of the U.S. Air Force and president of Protect Our Defenders, wrote in a May 16 op-ed in The Hill, "When it comes to sexual assault in the military, prosecutions and convictions are almost non-existent."

Christensen added that removing prosecution authority from commanders is key to military justice reform.

"It is time to finally admit that the power to prosecute serious cases in the military should be in the hands of seasoned prosecutors -- a conclusion the majority of Congress has now reached," he said. "To try and stop military justice reform that would help address the military's sexual assault epidemic based on faulty statistics is a disservice to the men and women in uniform.

As Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, reintroduced the I am Vanessa Guillén Act in the Senate, she said it "addresses long-standing systemic problems in the way that the military responds to sexual harassment and sexual assault."

"How long will victims of sexual harassment and assault continue to be afraid to report their abusers?" Hirono asked. "It seems that the military justice system is rather the military system without justice where survivors of these crimes cannot have confidence to know their reports will be confidential, taken seriously, and adjudicated properly."

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