POLITICS

James Wilkerson, Air Force Pilot Convicted Of Sexual Assault, Reassigned

Apr 02, 2013 | Updated Apr 08, 2013

The Air Force has quietly reassigned Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, an F-16 pilot convicted of aggravated sexual assault before a three-star general overturned the conviction, as a safety chief at an Arizona base, the Air Force confirmed Monday. His reassignment -- first reported by Stars and Stripes Friday evening -- comes amid a review of the controversial case and the military justice system, ordered by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

Wilkerson has been assigned to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson as the 12th Air Force chief of flight safety, helping run the safety program for a unit of F-16 fighters, according to Capt. Candice Ismirle of Air Force public affairs.

"You can't treat that person like they're still charged, so the Air Force needs to look at that person, technically speaking, as a normal individual," Ismirle told The Huffington Post on Monday, explaining Wilkerson's reassignment.

In November, a military jury convicted Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy, of sexually assaulting a civilian contractor, sentencing him to a year in detention and dismissing him from the military. But Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin overturned the conviction in February, reinstating Wilkerson and placing him on a promotion list. Article 60 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the legal basis of the military's justice system, allows a "convening authority" -- a commander reviewing the case -- “absolute power to disapprove the findings and sentence, or any part thereof, for any or no reason, legal or otherwise.”

"The convening authority overturned the case -- that's where it stops," Ismirle said. Under the UCMJ, "Wilkerson is not guilty. It's not because somebody decided, 'Hey, I want to take care of this guy.' This is all based on law."

Lt. Col. Brett Ashworth, another Air Force spokesman, rejected suggestions that the Air Force had acted quietly on the evening before Easter weekend. He said information had been given to two media outlets Friday morning in response to queries.

"The assignment was based upon his qualification and the needs of the Air Force," reads the statement from the Air Force Personnel Center provided on Friday.

Wilkerson's case has sparked outcry and prompted heated congressional hearings and legislation to further address the epidemic of sexual assault in the military, which the Department of Defense has estimated claims 19,000 victims each year, while fewer than one out of 10 reported attackers are held accountable.

Hagel responded to increasingly vocal calls for a review of Franklin's decision in a letter to several senators in March. While noting that the UCMJ gives no one the authority to overrule Franklin -- who is not required to state a reason for his decision -- Hagel requested the "factual basis" of his reasoning and a review of the case and the convening authority provisions of the UCMJ.

The deadline for the Air Force report was March 20 while the report of the acting general counsel of the Department of Defense was due March 27. Ismirle, the Air Force spokeswoman, said the Air Force reports are being redacted -- as is typical -- before they are released to the public on the "reading room" of the Freedom of Information Act Website.

According to Ismirle, the Air Force has overturned five cases of sexual assault in five years, with a majority resulting in reductions to sentences. She said no non-judicial punishment or other adverse action is being considered for Wilkerson.

When Franklin made his decision, he reversed the findings of a military jury in which two-thirds of the members had found Wilkerson guilty. Franklin, as the convening authority, had allowed the case to proceed to court martial in the first place.

"Wilkerson's case was overturned because the convening authority could not prove without a reasonable doubt that the actions happened," Ismirle said of Franklin's decision, which he has not explained publicly.

Lt. Col. Erik Coyne, Air Force JAG Corps chief of communications, explained that after a court martial convicts and sentences a defendant to confinement, the person is immediately taken to detention. In the case of Wilkerson, he was transferred back to the U.S. and confined for four months. But in the rare case where a convening authority overturns the conviction, as with Wilkerson, that person can "just go back to work," Coyne said.

"He was and still is on active duty -- he had to be assigned somewhere," Ashworth, the Air Force spokesman, told The Huffington Post. "The case itself is not what's being reviewed ... the case itself cannot be retried." Ismirle later clarified that Air Force leadership has been involved in the assignment, "taking everything into account."

"For Wilkerson, his face has been in the newspapers, so they have to consider the climate and the morale of that unit," Ismirle said.

The victim in the sexual assault case, Kimberly Hanks, a civilian physician assistant, still works at Aviano. Ismirle said she was "sure" the Air Force had been in touch with Hanks and also considered her position when deciding Wilkerson's new assignment. "We place a lot of emphasis on making sure our airmen, civilian and contractors, are considered," Ismirle said. "That individual is part of our family."

But Hanks told The Huffington Post in an email sent through advocacy group Protect Our Defenders that no one from the Air Force had contacted her about Wilkerson's reassignment. Hanks said she learned of it from a friend who sent her a link to the Stars and Stripes article.

"No one told me," Hanks said.

The Air Force reports are expected to contain as "many details as possible" of the court proceedings that led to Wilkerson's initial conviction, a response from Franklin and the Air Force perspective on potential revisions to Article 60, according to Ismirle.

During a recent heated Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing on sexual assault, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called for the reports ordered by Hagel to be submitted to Congress the day after they were due, to stress the urgency. Offices for several senators said they had not received the reports or word from the Defense Department in regards to them.

Blumenthal declined to comment on Wilkerson's reassignment. "He is still available in the event that there are questions appropriate for him to answer," the senator said.

Blumenthal noted that senators are continuing to discuss proposals to reform the military justice system.

"The Defense Department's views certainly will be a very important factor, but the reform effort is not completely dependent on the timing of the report," he said. "Secretary Hagel has indicated to us both privately and publicly that he understands the urgency and profound significance of this, of sexual assault as an issue, for his leadership, and I'm hoping for a very collaborative and cooperative effort, as well as a transparent one."

UPDATE: 3:10 p.m. -- The victim told The Huffington Post on Tuesday that members of her immediate family live in Tucson, Ariz., where Wilkerson's new base is located.

Several sexual assault victims in the Tucson area have already reached out to Protect Our Defenders to express their concern that the Air Force has chosen this assignment for Wilkerson, according to the group's communications director, Brian Purchia.

UPDATE: 4/8 -- Capt. Candice Ismirle of Air Force public affairs said in a statement to The Huffington Post Monday:

Lt Col Wilkerson's assignment was based on his qualifications and the needs of the Air Force. Our assignment process does not consider whether family members of an alleged victim might live near a future assignment location of the accused. Though the Air Force has offered the alleged victim legal counsel through the special victim's counsel, it did not consult her before the assignment was made. At this time, there are no plans to change Lt Col Wilkerson's assignment.

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