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Marine's Sexual Assault Conviction Thrown Out As Prosecution's Case Called Into Question

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An appeals court threw out a sexual assault conviction of Marine captain Nicholas Stewart on Tuesday.
An appeals court threw out a sexual assault conviction of Marine captain Nicholas Stewart on Tuesday.

The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces threw out this week the sexual assault conviction of Marine Captain Nicholas Stewart, citing issues with the prosecution as well as improper action by a military judge.

Stewart, who served as a fighter pilot in Iraq, was convicted of sexual assault under a 2006 law that enabled the military to make charges in cases in which the victim was "substantially incapacitated" from alcohol. Stewart was accused by a longtime friend who said although she was not forced by Stewart, she was too inebriated to have consented to sex. Stewart challenged the accuser, but was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. He was also registered as a sex offender.

As McClatchy reported Thursday, Stewart's case was appealed, and the court found that the prosecution lacked evidence to support the accuser's claims. The court also stated in its ruling that the military judge at Stewart's initial trial had "created the framework for a potential double jeopardy violation" by having the jury re-deliberate the charges against Stewart. In the first deliberation, Stewart was found not guilty. However, when asked by the judge to consider what was essentially the same charge, the jury found the Marine to be guilty.

"As a result of the military judge's instructions, [the jurors] were placed in the untenable position of finding Stewart both guilty and not guilty of the same offense," wrote the appeals judges.

The 33-year-old Stewart, who had served more than a year of his sentence, expressed relief after the appeals court's decision.

"I am grateful for this long-awaited proof of the integrity of our judicial system," he said. "I look forward to continuing to serve our country and our Marine Corps."

Stewart's case illuminates issues that some have taken with the 2006 law. As McClatchy reported last year, the law has been described as "flawed" for its confusing language, as well as the fact that it shifts the burden of proof to the accused.

However, with recent Pentagon reports showing that sexual assault in the military has taken a dramatic rise, others worry that not enough is being done to prevent assault. After the report, which showed a 64 percent jump in assaults since 2006, was released, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced plans to create new initiatives aimed at curbing the growing problem.

Several cases invoking the 2006 law have made the news recently, including the charging of three Air Force cadets with sexual assault. Two of those cadets were charged with assaulting women who were "substantially incapacitated." These cases were also reportedly complicated by a lack of forensic evidence.

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