03/13/2013 11:29 am ET Updated May 13, 2013

Their Day in Court

Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

When I was a prosecutor in Kansas City, my job was to fight for justice and safety for all citizens in my community. Equal access to justice under the law is an American value embedded in the fabric of our legal and political system -- the idea that anybody, powerful or not, can have their day in court.

Of the many tough cases I prosecuted, rape and sexual assaults were among the most devastating crimes. I held the hands of victims and cried with them. And it was my job to make sure that survivors were able to achieve some small piece of justice, by ensuring those responsible were held accountable.

I've carried that perspective with me on the Senate Armed Services Committee for more than six years. During that time, we've seen disturbing cases of rape and sexual assault within the ranks of our military. These crimes have the dual effects of traumatizing individual victims, and of poisoning morale across the armed forces.

Some positive steps have been taken -- but today, after recent developments in a particularly troubling case, I feel a new sense of urgency, and I'm calling for new action.

In November, Air Force Lt. Col. James Wilkerson was convicted of sexual assault. He was found guilty by an all-male military jury, sentenced to one year in a military prison, and dismissal from service. At the time, this case was heralded by some as a sign that the military was taking serious steps to combat sexual assaults, and evidence that more aggressive oversight by Congress was not needed.

But just a few months after Wilkerson began to serve his sentence, the Air Force commander overseeing Wilkerson's case, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, used his command authority to dismiss the charges against Wilkerson. It was a unilateral action, permissible under military law, and one which led Wilkerson to be released from prison and reinstated into service, his record expunged of wrongdoing. Lt. Gen. Franklin, a fighter pilot like Wilkerson, was not even required to provide a reason for his decision.

The shock and anger I felt when I learned about this reversal must pale in comparison to its effect on sexual assault survivors. What chilling message does this decision send to victims?

As I told military leaders last week, it's difficult to imagine a sexual assault survivor in that Air Force unit will now come forward -- having received the message communicated by Lt. Gen. Franklin, with just the stroke of a pen, that jury decisions don't matter, and that if you're sexually assaulted in the military, you're on your own.

This violates every sense of justice and fairness that we expect in America. And that's why I'm taking action.

Yesterday, I met with the chief of staff of the Air Force. I've formally requested that he and the secretary of the Air Force conduct an immediate review of Lt. Gen. Franklin's actions, and I asked tough questions about how this outcome is justified.

And while the military justice system is different from our civil justice system for good reasons, I believe the time has come to take a hard look at the rules which allow military commanders to vacate entire jury convictions, expunge criminal records, and reinstate convicted sex offenders to the ranks of our armed forces, without even offering justification.

The message that must be sent is this: If you commit rape or sexual assault, you will go to prison. And if you turn a blind eye to such crimes and allow them to continue, you will be held accountable.

The U.S. military is the best-trained, most effective fighting force the world has ever known. And the conduct of the vast majority of our service members makes Americans rightfully proud. That's why our fight for justice and accountability is about even more than these individual crimes -- it's about ensuring that crimes committed by those in military service do not permanently stain the honor and dignity the overwhelming majority of our troops display every day.

Today, a Senate panel is convening a hearing to study the problems of sexual assault in the military and the need to pursue justice in all cases.

I'll be there, fighting for justice for the survivors of sexual assaults in the military, aiming to give them the kind of day in court they deserve.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, formerly served as Jackson County prosecutor.