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Senator blocks Air Force officer's nomination over sex assault case

By Donna Cassata

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 07:54 a.m. HST, Jun 07, 2013

WASHINGTON » A U.S. senator remains steadfast in blocking the nomination of Air Force Lt. Gen. Susan Helms, tapped to serve as vice commander of the U.S. Space Command, over serious concerns with Helms' decision to overturn a jury conviction in a sexual assault case.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who first put a hold on the nomination in April, said she met with Helms and Air Force officials yet still had reservations.

"At a time when the military is facing a crisis of sexual assault, making a decision that sends a message which dissuades reporting of sexual assaults, supplants the finding of a jury, contradicts the advice of counsel and further victimizes a survivor of sexual assault is unacceptable," said McCaskill, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

McCaskill's hold effectively prevents the Senate from approving Helms' nomination.

In February 2012, Helms rejected the recommendation of legal counsel and overturned the conviction of an Air Force captain who had been found guilty of aggravated sexual assault of a female lieutenant.

McCaskill explained her objections in a statement in the Congressional Record on Thursday.

"Lt. Gen. Helms has a record of more than thirty years of distinguished military service, in which she became the first American military woman in space, among other significant achievements. Her career is to be celebrated," McCaskill said. "However, I continue to have deep concerns with Lt. Gen. Helms' decision, while a commander and courts-martial convening authority, to overturn the jury verdict of a military court martial in which the jury found an Air Force officer guilty of sexual assault. She made this decision against the advice of her staff judge advocate."

The Helms' situation echoes another Air Force case that has outraged members of Congress and prompted them to move swiftly on legislation that would strip commanders of the authority to overturn convictions.

Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the 3rd Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, overturned a conviction against Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy. Wilkerson had been found guilty last Nov. 2 of charges of abusive sexual contact, aggravated sexual assault and three instances of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. The incident had involved a civilian employee.

Wilkerson was sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the service. But after a review of the case Franklin overturned the conviction.

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LMO wrote:
Remove the ability of commanders to overturn jury decisions. Remove commands from any part of sexual assault investigation or consequence decisions.
on June 7,2013 | 05:55AM
allie wrote:
agree..after losing two wars and failing to stop sexual assault, this phoney general deserves to be dismissed along with much of the wretched high command
on June 7,2013 | 08:01AM
Pacej001 wrote:
Boundless ignorance, squared.
on June 7,2013 | 09:31AM
Ronin006 wrote:
You have that right.
on June 7,2013 | 11:44AM
pcman wrote:
This goes to prove my point that it doesn't matter whether a commander is male or female. When sexual abuse, harassment, and discrimination accusations occur, it is often one person's word against another. Given the facts of the situation the commander must decide whether to call it a tie or take sides. From my experience more often than not, male commanders take the side of the women given the outburst of disagreement that would occur otherwise. Women commanders are more often than not more objective, given the situation where women are advised ( if not commanded) not to drink with men, not to engage with married men, not to allow men alone into their dorm quarters, etc., etc. This female commander has been there and done that and knows what it takes to stay out of "sexual trouble."
on June 7,2013 | 07:19AM
localguy wrote:
Following the example Sen. Claire McCaskill just set in blocking the promotion of the Captain, we should block the reelection of all senators and congressinal reps until they eliminate the backlog of work they have willfully failed to do for years. Especially the ongoing fiscal fiasco. For congress, they created the conditions that caused the medical compounding deaths, we should fire an congressional rep who was responsible for blocking the Surgeon General's recommendation for government oversight of compounding companies. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. Beltway bureaucrats are so full of themselves, legends in their own mind.
on June 7,2013 | 07:25AM
pizza wrote:
It is encouraging to me that Congress is showing character and judgment by acting against military commanders misuse of power when overturning jury verdicts. Jury verdicts are a pillar of American democracy, and a commander overturning same is tantamount to a form of totalitarian government ripe for every kind of human rights violations.
on June 7,2013 | 08:07AM
Ronin006 wrote:
So what do you say about jury verdicts being overturned in the civilian court system? It happens quite frequently.
on June 7,2013 | 11:47AM
nodaddynotthebelt wrote:
I think that the system is broken and that the military should be required to report all crimes to federal authorities. The military should not be allowed to try military personnel for crimes that are punishable by federal law. The system had its use in the old day. That is no longer the case and the problems of having the military try their own amounts to conflict of interest.
on June 7,2013 | 08:40AM
Pacej001 wrote:
"The military should not be allowed to try military personnel for crimes that are punishable by federal law." This simple sentence would destroy our military. Same with removing sexual harassment claims from the military chain of command. Both or either would wreck military discipline. Now before you get wound up, the matter of sexual assault being tolerated is equally poisonous for the military. It must be stopped, period, by clear standards and removal of commanders/officers/NCOs that don't comply. Hopefully we can do this without introducing into the military the current form of politically correct gender politics that currently infests our institutions of higher learning or some components of the Federal government.
on June 7,2013 | 09:31AM
irakaniho wrote:
Please examine the social affiliations of the convicted persons and the commanders who overturned the convictions. Both commanders achieved their positions with the help of others and now must "Pay the Piper."
on June 7,2013 | 09:35AM
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