Senate OKs bill on military sexual assault

By Donna Cassata The Associated Press Published Mar 11, 2014 at 12:01AM

General’s prosecution put in doubt

FORT BRAGG, N.C. — The sexual assault case against an Army general was thrown into jeopardy Monday when the judge said the military may have improperly pressed ahead with a trial to send a message about its determination to curb rape and other widespread misconduct.

Judge Col. James Pohl refused to dismiss the charges against Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair but offered the defense another chance to plea-bargain the case with a set of military officials not previously involved with the matter.

The judge reviewed newly disclosed emails in Sinclair’s case and said he found the appearance of “unlawful command influence” in Fort Bragg officials’ decision to reject a plea bargain with the general in January.

Under the military code of justice, the decision was supposed to be decided solely on the evidence, not its broader political implications.

Pohl said the emails showed that the military officials who rejected the plea bargain had discussed a letter from the accuser’s lawyer. The letter warned that allowing the general to avoid trial would “send the wrong signal.”

— The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill late Monday making big changes in the military justice system to deal with sexual assault, including scrapping the nearly century-old practice of using a “good soldier defense” to raise doubts that a crime has been committed.

On a vote of 97-0, the Senate rallied behind a bipartisan plan crafted by three female senators — Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Republicans Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Deb Fischer of Nebraska — that would impose a half-dozen changes to combat the pervasive problem of rape and sexual offenses that Pentagon leaders have likened to a cancer within the ranks.

“Unanimous agreement in the U.S. Senate is pretty rare — but rarer still is the kind of sweeping, historic change we’ve achieved over the past year in the military justice system,” McCaskill said after the vote.

Still, that unanimous support was in sharp contrast to last week, when military leaders vigorously opposed a measure by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would have stripped commanders of their authority to prosecute cases and given that power to seasoned military lawyers outside the chain of command. The Senate voted 55-45 for that farther-reaching bill, but that was five votes short of the necessary 60.

Though expressing certain reservations, the Pentagon had been generally accepting of the new bill.