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Newly Disclosed Documents Reveal Extreme Lengths Military Brass Go to Protect High-ranking Perpetrators of Sexual Assault

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A flood of emails just released in response to a long-delayed Freedom of Information request graphically expose the depth of commanders bias to protect higher ranking sexual assault criminals in their ranks. Air Force leaders' email streams vividly display their focus on protecting the old boy's network.

The Aviano Air Base sexual assault epidemic has been international news for months and the case has become the poster child for calls for an independent and impartial justice system. These recently released documents make crystal clear why Congress must remove the authority to prosecute and adjudicate sexual assault crimes from the often-biased and conflicted chain of command.

The case took a disturbing new turn late last week with the release of Lt General Craig Franklin's and other Air Force leaders' emails. This case provides a rare in-depth perspective inside the mindset of military leaders as they face the ongoing, multi-decade epidemic of sexual assault within the U.S. Military.

Lt Col James Wilkerson was convicted of aggravated sexual assault against a civilian contractor at Aviano Air Force Base. As his punishment, the jury ruled that Wilkerson should be dismissed from the Air Force and sentenced to one year in jail. Lt Gen Franklin then overturned the conviction and freed his fellow pilot, against the legal advice of his own staff Judge Advocate General. Franklin justified his decision in part because Wilkerson was a good officer and a "doting father and husband." (See point-by-point rebuttal for Franklin's 18 reasons for overturning the verdict.)

These recently released emails expose how Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin repeatedly abused his power in order to protect the convicted assailant, Lt Col James Wilkerson. They also show Franklin and his superior's disregard for the victim who the chief prosecutor called, "one of the most credible witnesses I've ever dealt with." Lt Gen Franklin was overly invested in seeing that Wilkerson get his clearance reinstated, get a good assignment next tour, and get promoted.

After Wilkerson assured Franklin that there were no more skeletons that might come out -- a subsequent Air Force investigation revealed that Wilkerson had had an affair and fathered a child out of wedlock, further undermining Lt Gen Franklin's rationale for overturning Wilkerson's conviction and any logic for retaining him as a Colonel in the Air Force. This was just part of Wilkerson's long history of misconduct. It is clear that the chain of command "has his back" and certainly not that of the victim. As of this writing, Wilkerson remains a Colonel, stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, where many of Wilkerson's victim's family reside.

Four months ago, Wilkerson's victim asked the Air Force to provide documents surrounding the trial and post-trial activities. The military failed to comply with multiple legal deadlines. At our request, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) stepped in and demanded a response. The documents were finally released last week. The newly released emails send a chilling reminder to victims of sexual assault in our military, who are thinking about coming forward, that military brass will go to extreme lengths to protect the status quo. In the emails, pleas from the Commander of the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano, Brig Gen Scott Zobrist, urging Lt Gen Franklin to not overturn Wilkerson's aggravated sexual assault conviction, were ignored.

"That would be absolutely devastating in so many ways that I cannot even begin to consider it," Zobrist wrote in a Feb. 19, 2013 email. "Having Wilkerson back on active duty at Aviano, even for one day, would... have a huge negative impact on morale, send a very negative message about how seriously we take sexual assault in the AF, and potentially call into question the effectiveness of our UCMJ system in general."

Lt Gen Franklin dismissed the warnings and instead got support from his commander to dismiss the jury's findings and toss out the conviction. In email exchanges, the Air Force Commander in Europe, Gen Mark Breedlove stated that he agreed with Franklin's actions.

Franklin also sent AF Chief of Staff Mark Welsh his rationale for dismissing the verdict. And according to the San Antonio Express, in March, Welsh responded by supporting Franklin's decision to make his reasons public. "I think it was the right thing to do, but it's going to be a little uncomfortable for a while. Hang in there -- good time to be in Europe!" Welsh wrote March 12.

General Breedlove also wrote to Welsh, "He [Franklin] and I have discussed in depth the meaning and the possible blow back. I stand behind his decision." (Click here for more excerpts from the FOIA release.) Furthermore, on March 15, before 500 majors, rising Commanders Breedlove defended Franklin's actions.

With Breedlove blessing, Lt Gen Franklin set aside justice and started a full court press to get Wilkerson promoted and flying again.

"I intend to get him back to a flying assignment ASAP (away from Aviano.) Please make sure Col Wilkerson knows he can contact me or his OG... about the way ahead for his next assignment," wrote Franklin. "Getting him reunited with is family is the priority for the next few days. Certainly after he and [his wife] have had a chance to discuss it, we will see what he wants to do next."

Following Lt Gen Franklin's decision, Protect Our Defenders (POD) brought Wilkerson's victim to meet with elected officials ahead of a March Senate hearing on the ongoing epidemic and her case. The Advocacy group also launched a campaign demanding President Obama and Sec. Chuck Hagel remove Franklin and Wilkerson from the service.

Meanwhile, calls quickly grew to remove the commander's authority to overturn verdicts, which the Defense Department recently agreed to adopt. However, commanders still have the authority to overturn sentences -- a remaining danger to justice and potentially as damaging as overturning a conviction.

Members of Congress, from both parties, condemned Franklin's action.

Senior military leaders have repeatedly told Congress and the public that they have "zero tolerance" for sexual assaults in the ranks and that they have changed the culture to address the crisis. The actions revealed in these newly released documents show the opposite. Franklin's decision and senior Air Force leaders support for it has cut the legs out from under military prosecutors thinking about bringing sexual assault cases to trial and sent an extremely negative signal to victims who must decide whether to report their assaults and rapes.

After decades of military sexual assault scandals from Tailhook in '92 to Aberdeen to Lackland and Aviano in 2013, it is time for our elected officials to put the interests of our brave men and women in uniform ahead of empty promises from military brass. How many times must an organization fail in the same way, after making the same promises, before it's time for a change?

The decision of military leaders to support the overturning of the Wilkerson conviction must have been made on faith, faith based on a belief that high ranking officers, whom they trust must be innocent. Our brave sons and daughters, brothers and sisters who risk their lives to protect us -- deserve to receive justice equal that which civilians are entitled - a professional, independent and unbiased military justice system outside the often biased and conflicted chain of command.

The Pentagon reports there were an estimated 26,000 cases of sexual assault and other sex crimes in 2012, yet less than 8 percent were reported. Of those few who did report, 60 percent state they were retaliated against.

At the heart of the matter are common sense questions with common sense answers: Should justice be blind? Should legal authorities be impartial, trained and experienced? How many civilians would want their boss to decide whether they will receive justice after being raped at work? There should be no more delays. It's time for congress to remove the authority to prosecute and adjudicate these cases from the often biased and conflicted chain of command.