A look at the role of the military justice system

In this June 2, 2012 file photo, House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass. speaks in Springfield, Mass. Determined to check the growing epidemic of sexual assaults in the armed forces, a House panel is poised to approve a series of revisions to longstanding military law. They include stripping commanding officers of their unilateral authority to change or dismiss a court-martial conviction and requiring that service members found guilty of sexual offenses be dismissed or dishonorably discharged. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

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WASHINGTON (AP) — At the heart of the debate in Congress over combatting sexual assault in the military is the question of how criminal complaints are governed by the military justice system.



Every sexual assault allegation must be investigated by a service like the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, sometimes called the Army’s felony-level detectives. Each service has an equivalent unit.

It is up to the suspect’s commander — based on advice provided by a military lawyer — whether to press charges and bring a suspect to trial. The commander has alternatives to court martial, including “non-judicial” punishment, such as issuing a letter of reprimand, and non-punitive actions. Under Article 60 of the code, the commander also has sole discretion to dismiss any case by setting aside a guilty finding.

For example, Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy, was found guilty by a military panel in November 2012 of charges of abusive sexual contact and aggravated sexual assault. Wilkerson was sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the service, but Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the 3rd Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, reviewed the case and overturned the jury’s verdict of guilty because he said later he found Wilkerson more believable than the complainant.


The Uniform Code of Military Justice is a federal law signed by President Harry Truman on May 5, 1950, and was designed for a reorganized and expanded post-World War II defense establishment. The code underwent major revisions in 1968 and 1983.

The code applies to all personnel in the armed forces. When an alleged crime is committed by a military member in a civilian setting, jurisdiction rests with local civilian law enforcement authorities but is sometimes transferred to the military system.


Military leaders see a commander’s authority to administer justice as critical to ensuring discipline and cohesion within the ranks of his or her unit. But many in Congress believe that in the case of sexual offenses that would be a felony in the civilian justice system, the decision on whether to take the case to trial should be taken out of the chain of command and placed in the hands of experienced military trial counsels. Some have said commanders might show favoritism or use other factors than the law to decide whether a case should proceed.


In the case of sexual offenses, a victim has numerous options for seeking justice outside the chain of command. The victim can register a complaint with a member of the military police or, if the alleged crime happened off a military base, to civilian law enforcement, or can call 911. He or she also could make a complaint to the Pentagon’s inspector general or to a military or civilian sexual assault response office or a hospital staff.

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