The Air Force has ruled that the sexual assault case against Airman 1st Class Brandon T. Wright, despite enduring a tangled history of alleged political influences, will move forward with a court-martial this October. In the July 30 decision, Lt. Col. Joshua Kastenberg recognized that Wright's initial case had been exposed to "unlawful command influence," but that a second investigation into the charges was viable and supports a criminal trial in Washington D.C.
As Stars & Stripes reports, Wright was first accused of sexual assault back in 2013, where Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin dismissed the case following an Article 32 hearing at Aviano Air Base in Italy. However, Kastenberg notes that the case was then recommended for a transfer and re-evaluation by Lt. Gen. Richard Harding, a now-retired judge advocate general.
In the ruling, Kastenberg concluded that Harding recommended the transfer for political reasons—namely because the act of not court-martialing Wright would give Senator Kirsten Gillibrand more political clout. Senator Gillibrand has led the charge on trying to install independent prosecutors into the military justice system to remove favoritism and undue influence, particularly in sexual assault cases. Harding is an outspoken opponent of Gillibrand's proposed policies.
According to testimony from Col. Joseph Bialke, Franklin's legal advisor, Harding had tried to influence him during a phone call at the time of Wright’s hearing. Both Franklin and Bialke were given forced retirements after the dismissal of Wright's case, further indicating that unlawful command influence had occurred.
Harding admits that he opposes Gillibrand's ideas for military justice reform, but maintains that those opinions did not come into play in Wright's case. Instead, he says his phone call to Bialke was informative in nature because he was responsible for reporting on the case to Congress. "I needed to be able to explain it. I didn’t tell him we needed to bend to Congress at all," he told Stars and Stripes. He added that findings in Katzenberg's ruling are "just dead wrong."
A HISTORY OF SUPPORTING VICTIMS’ RIGHTS
Harding also has an alternate explanation of why Wright's case was transferred to Washington D.C. According to him, Special Victims' Counsel had submitted a 12-page memo, prior to Harding's phone call to Bialke, alleging that there was a bias against her client during the Article 32 hearing. Harding alleges that transferring the case was to "make sure the process was done right."
Prior to Wright's case, Harding had fought against opposition to ensure that the Special Victims' Counsel Program was adopted by the military. The program provides alleged sexual assault victims with advocating lawyers to assist them throughout the judicial process. Harding now believes that a bias against him for those efforts has influenced the Kastenberg ruling.
In the end, Harding's actions, no matter what their motive was, exposes what many believe is an unacceptable atmosphere of cronyism in the military justice system. "The whole case shows the inadequacy of the convening authority system," said Don Christensen, former Air Force prosecutor and president of the Protect Our Defenders advocacy group. He added that the current military justice system is "saddled with inexperienced commanders receiving faulty legal advice from people who are not independent, professional prosecutors.”
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