Former top prosecutor for Air Force seeks justice for victims of sexual assault in the military

CROP -- Don Christensen 6-5-15

Donald Christensen (above left), the former chief prosecutor for the U.S. Air Force, was the keynote speaker on Friday, June 5, 2015, at the 7th Annual Veterans’ Legal Assistance Conference & Training at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

“I love military justice,” said Christensen, whose family’s military roots go back six generations. “I also know what its weaknesses are.”

In a high-profile case, Christensen in 2012 successfully prosecuted Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, the inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy and a fighter pilot who was accused of sexual assault by a female physician’s assistant on the base. Wilkerson was found guilty of aggravated sexual assault, sentenced to a year in prison and dismissed from the Air Force. A few months later, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, the convening authority, overturned the conviction. (A convening authority is authorized to modify the findings and sentence of a court-martial.) Wilkerson was released and reinstated in the Air Force at full rank.

In response, Christensen retired from the service to devote himself to repairing what he calls a “broken” military justice system. In 2014 he became the president of Protect Our Defenders, a California-based advocacy group for victims of sexual assault in the armed forces that seeks to “fix the military training, investigation and adjudication systems related to sexual violence, systems that often re-victimize survivors by blaming them while failing to prosecute perpetrators.”

Christensen also discussed the Aviano case with The New York Times, which published a Sunday magazine story, The Military’s Rough Justice on Sexual Assault,” on Nov. 26, 2014.

Approximately 20,000 servicemen and women are sexually assaulted by fellow service members each year, Christensen told the audience at UB’s John and Frances Angelos Law Center, adding that fewer than 200 people are convicted annually of the crimes. Servicewomen who bring charges of sexual assault are 12 percent more likely to face retaliation than to see their attacker prosecuted, he added.

The situation is unlikely to change until the current system of military justice – in which commanders pick juries and convening authorities are able to overturn verdicts – is replaced by a professional military justice system, he said.

“Commanders do not have the experience [to handle sexual-assault cases],” Christensen said, explaining that commanders tend to see service members as “good people.”

“Good people do bad things all the time,” Christensen said. “If you’ve been lied to enough, you understand that. [But] commanders don’t know that or they don’t know they’re being lied to.”

Moreover, he continued, a service member who levels accusations of sexual assault against another member of the military is typically viewed as a “traitor” or as “somebody not loyal to the unit.”

At the same time, the accused is almost always popular and has the support of the unit, he said.

Christensen described a typical sex-assault court-martial: “Behind the accused are scores of his unit members, his commander, his first sergeant. Nobody is sitting with the victim, who is called a slut, a whore and told she’ll ‘get what she deserves.’”

He paused. “Think about the isolation [of the victim],” he said. “The isolation is palpable.”

Christensen also described so-called Article 32 pretrial hearings, in which – until recently – a service member who pressed charges of sexual assault could be questioned for hours, or days, with no judge present.

“One victim testified for 30 hours,” Christensen said, adding that questions included: “Were you wearing a bra and panties? How wide do you usually open your mouth when you perform oral sex? Did you feel like a ‘ho’ when you left?”

As of December 2014, servicemembers pressing sexual-assault charges may decline to testify at Article 32 hearings and can instead submit a sworn statement as evidence.

“We got rid of that,” Christensen said of the in-person testimony requirement. “We’ve done a lot of great things to change military justice.”

But many more improvements are needed, he said: “We must switch from a command-based to a professional military justice system.”

The full-day conference and training event, which featured several speakers and panelists, offered sessions about veterans’ pension benefits, discharge upgrades, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, as well as discussions about progress on dockets and courts for veterans in Maryland.

Conference organizers included the Homeless Persons Representation Project, the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, the University of Baltimore School of Law, The Bob Parsons Veterans Center at the University of Baltimore, and the Veterans’ Affairs and Military Law Committee of the Maryland State Bar Association.

The event was co-sponsored by the American Bar Association Commission on Homelessness & Poverty, the Elder Law & Disability Rights Section of the Maryland State Bar Association, Saul Ewing LLP, and the Veterans and Military Law Section of the Federal Bar Association.

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