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Defense Sec. Hagel Suggests Ending Commanders' Power To Overturn Convictions in Sexual Assault, Other Cases

Defense Sec. Hagel Suggests Ending Commanders' Power To Overturn Convictions in Sexual Assault, Other Cases

April 10, 2013 — Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Monday announced he would ask Congress to change U.S. military law to remove senior commanders' authority to alter court martial verdicts for major crimes, including sexual assault and murder, Reuters reports (Alexander, Reuters, 4/8).

Hagel's decision follows an Air Force general's ruling in February to dismiss a pilot's sexual assault conviction. The general's ruling sparked an outcry in Congress and prompted Hagel in late February to order the Pentagon's lawyers to review related military policies (Whitlock, Washington Post, 4/8).

In announcing the results of the review, Hagel also said he would recommend that Congress change military law for minor cases to require that the "convening authority" -- the general with final say over the court martial -- provide a written explanation about the reason for any change or reduction in a sentence or verdict.

"The intent is to ensure that convening authorities are required to justify -- in an open, transparent, and recorded manner -- any decision to modify a court martial sentence," Hagel said in a statement. He added, "These changes, if enacted by Congress, would help ensure that our military justice system works fairly, ensures due process, and is accountable" (Reuters, 4/8).

The changes would apply to all court marital cases that result in guilty verdicts (Washington Post, 4/8).

Reactions to Hagel's Recommendations

Some DOD officials disagreed with Hagel's recommendations, saying that removing commanders' authority to reduce court martial convictions would jeopardize their ability to encourage defendants to cooperate with plea bargain attempts.

They also said commanders need the authority to ensure that sentences for individuals convicted of similar crimes do not vary too widely (Reuters, 4/8).

Some advocacy groups said Hagel's recommendations do not go far enough.

Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, praised Hagel's effort but said the Pentagon needs to give more power to prosecutors and judges and reduce commanders' authority even further (Washington Post, 4/8).

Nancy Parrish, head of Protect Our Defenders, also said the changes "fall short of the necessary fixes to end the epidemic of sexual assault in the military" (Reuters, 4/8).