Military Sexual Assault Cases Shift to Independent ProsecutorsGo Back to News and Updates
As a radical shift away from the conventional command structure, sexual assault charges are now being handled by independent military prosecutors. In response to a legislative order to remove commanders from prosecution decision-making for thirteen major offenses, each military service's newly formed special trial counsel office formally started operations on Thursday.
The change is an attempt to reassure victims of sexual assault that their allegations would be treated correctly and by civilian prosecution norms, which should give them more faith in the system. An anonymous senior defense source stressed the need for civilian oversight of military operations.
Two years ago, in response to over a decade of lobbying, Congress made establishing special trial counsel offices mandatory. Aligning the military justice system more closely with civilian courts was the objective in combating sexual assault, which included minimizing commanders' influence on prosecutions. Justice was impeded, according to advocates and MPs, since commanders were not impartial and were reluctant to pursue cases involving close colleagues.
Congressional action was made possible because, after early opposition, the Pentagon came around to having separate prosecutors handle specific offenses. The prosecution of various crimes, such as sexual assault, manslaughter, kidnapping, domestic violence, stalking, retaliation, child pornography, sexual misconduct, death or injury to an unborn child, and use of the mail to send obscene material, is now the responsibility of the special trial counsel offices. In the year 2025, sexual harassment will be included in this list as well.
Nevertheless, there has been some debate about the revision. The Army removed the prosecutor it had initially selected to head its particular trial counsel office earlier this month after the disclosure of an email he had sent in 2013 that seemed to denigrate survivors of sexual assault. After this episode, reformers began worrying that the military's inherent prejudice hampered their efforts.
However, military officials played down these worries and highlighted the special trial counsel offices' effective start. A senior Army officer reassured reporters that the organization had shown resilience in the face of unforeseen developments. The source stressed that the capacity to exercise autonomous authority was unaffected.
The screening procedure for prosecutors has remained unchanged since the Army dismissal, according to officials from both services, despite the uproar. Senate confirmations and regular promotion boards are still used in the appointment procedure. Notable individuals from each branch have been designated as lead special trial counsel; for example, the Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Kevin Woodard, the Navy's Rear Adm. Jonathan Stephens, the Air Force's Brig. Gen. Christopher Brown, and the Army's interim post-firing office chief, Col. Robert Rodrigues.
Special trial counsel offices have been set up at several locations across the nation and the world. The Air Force has forty-five prosecutors, the Marines have thirty-three, the Navy has forty-seven, and the Army has sixty-five. To be certified as an exceptional trial counsel, one must undergo extensive training on the new process's handling of the listed offenses. The Navy's current team of 24 senior litigators consists of qualified prosecutors; the other prosecutors will lend a hand with cases as needed, and more certifications are anticipated shortly.
Although the official opening is scheduled for Thursday, prosecutors have already begun providing case advice during the office setup. They have no intention of taking over prosecution if a case is well-progressed, but they will keep advising on continuing cases. The special trial counsel offices may "reach back" and bring charges for offenses that happened before Thursday to deal with crimes that have lagged in reporting or persisted for years. If the instances are still in the early stages and were reported before Thursday, they may also evaluate them.
The focus is on top commanders making choices independently, based on data and without external influences. A high-ranking Army officer emphasized the need to put professional concerns aside to achieve justice. The establishment of special trial counsel offices is an essential step toward a more fair and efficient method of dealing with sexual assault in the military.
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