Are Military Court Convictions Set in Stone?


In November of 2012, Air Force Lt. Col James Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy, was found guilty of sexually assaulting a civilian contractor by a military jury consisting of four colonels and a lieutenant colonel.  Lt. Colonel Wilkerson was sentenced to one year in jail; discharged from the service and required to forfeit all of his pay.

If that were the end of the story, this blog posting would simply be about another unfortunate military incident involving civilian contractors. We are writing this posting to highlight the powers assigned to superior officers regardless of whether they have any legal training.

In February 2013, Lt. General Craig Franklin, overturned the Military Court’s conviction.  Even more shocking was the fact that Lt. General Franklin placed Wilkerson’s name on a promotion list. Franklin’s decision, as the convening authority in that case, released the 44-year-old F-16 pilot from jail and reinstated him into the Air Force.

As reported by the Stars and Stripes, Lt. General Franklin has absolutely no regrets about his decision to overturn the conviction.  “I’ll tell you I am sleeping like a baby at night time,” Franklin testified at a staff sergeant’s court-martial hearing last month at RAF Lakenheath, England. “I made the right decision even amidst all the attacks… I can sleep well at night because I know I made the right call.”

In a letter released this week, Franklin explained his reasoning for deciding that Wilkerson had not been proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and thus overturning the verdict of the five-colonel jury, who were convinced after hearing witness testimony that Wilkerson had groped a 49-year-old physician assistant sleeping in his guest room after a party.

The New York Times wrote: The general “was looking for a way to show the pilot community he had their backs”. If this is true, Lt. General Franklin’s actions highlight both cronyism and a flagrant abuse of military authority.

According to 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.”

As reported by the Daily Kos, Instead of serving his prison sentence, Lt. Col Wilkerson will be transferred to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson assigned as the 12th Air Force Chief of Flight Safety to help run the safety program for a unit of F-16 fighters. Even though Lt. Col. Wilkerson was found guilty of sexual assault, he will not be required to be registered as a sex offender.  The guilty verdict has been completely erased from his record, and  this convicted sex offender is able to continue serving as if nothing has  happened putting others at risk. Adding insult to injury, the U.S Air Force plans on transferring a man found guilty for rape to the hometown of the victim.

The action taken by Lt. General Franklin have prompted a United States Senator to call for his dismissal.  Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, wrote to the secretary and chief of staff of the Air Force to ask them to review the decision by Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin to exonerate Lt. Col. James Wilkerson.

Senator McCaskill wrote: “His decision shows ignorance, at best, and malfeasance, at worst. I strongly urge you to undertake an immediate review of his conduct and consider removing him from his leadership position” and is the fourth lawmaker to express their outrage over the Wilkerson case.

Perhaps the only good that will come from the actions taken by Lt. General Franklin is that the military will re-examine Article 60 and seek to limit the authority afforded to commanding officers once a military jury has reached a decision.