Military Law

High-profile military sexual assault trials stoke controversy


The separate sexual assault cases which concluded this week against an Army general and a U.S. Naval Academy midshipman have stoked the ongoing debate over how the military and the military justice system deal with such cases, the Associated Press reports.

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair entered a guilty plea to adultery with a subordinate officer, and inappropriate relationships with two others in sexually explicit emails, but the core charge of sexual assault was dropped as part of the plea deal. Evidence indicated possible command-level political motives behind the rejection of his first plea offer as an attempt to show that the Army is aggressively addressing sexual assaults.

Defense lawyers for Midshipman Joshua Tate argued that he, too, was targeted by a similar political agenda. He was acquitted Thursday, in part because his accuser initially balked at cooperating with investigators and because the prosecution failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that his accuser was too intoxicated to consent to sex, the Washington Post reports. The defense argued that although the accuser had blacked out, that did not mean that she was incapable of giving consent.

Gen. Sinclair was spared jail time, but he forfeited $20,000 in pay, and has plans to retire. He will keep his retirement benefits. Tate agreed to leave the Naval Academy in exchange for the remaining charges against him being dropped.

Some argue that the two cases are further proof of the military’s inability to deal with sexual assault within the ranks; others say they show that politics played too large a role in the prosecutions.

The issue has simmered in Congress but never neared the boiling point.

“Even when the world is watching, the military has demonstrated their incompetence at meting out justice,” Rep. Jackie Spier, D-Calif., said in a prepared statement concerning Sinclair’s case, the AP reported.

A bill backed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., did not attract enough votes earlier this month to reach a Senate vote.

While saying that victims should be supported and encouraged to come forward, “This was not the right case,” Richard Scheff, Sinclair’s lawyer, told the AP.

Meanwhile, the accuser in Tate’s case has become a campus pariah, according to an earlier Washington Post article. In the year since the case became public, the number of “unrestricted” sexual assault reports (which would trigger an investigation) at the nation’s military academies fell by 30 percent, but the number of “restricted” reports (which allow students to seek treatment after a sexual assault without triggering a investigation) rose by 7 percent, reports the Washington Post.

“It sends a message: ‘All these people are not going to believe me,’” said Delilah Rumburg, who co-authored a Pentagon study on sexual assaults and harassment in service academies.

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