An Air Force general has run afoul of Congress for granting clemency to a convicted sex offender without any public explanation, the latest case to raise fundamental questions about how the military justice system handles sex crimes.
The case is the second this year in which a three-star Air Force general has raised lawmakers’ hackles by effectively pardoning an officer found guilty of sexual assault, a crime many experts see as a growing problem in the military.
This time the general is a former astronaut who has served as a role model for other female officers as she climbed into the upper ranks of the Air Force.
Lt. Gen. Susan J. Helms, who as a crew member of the space shuttle Endeavour became the first U.S. military woman to travel in space in 1993, was poised to make another ascent in her career in March when the White House nominated her to become vice commander of the Air Force’s Space Command.
But her nomination has been blocked by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, who wants to examine Helms’s previously unpublicized decision to overturn the conviction, on charges of aggravated sexual assault, of a captain at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Helms’s action mirrors another case that has drawn angry attention from Congress and prompted legislators to propose landmark changes in military law. In that instance, victims’ advocates called for the firing of Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force in Europe, after he tossed out the sexual-assault conviction of a star fighter pilot in February.
In both cases, the generals ignored the recommendations of their legal advisers and overruled a jury’s findings — without publicly revealing why. Neither general was a judge and neither observed the trials, but they intervened to grant clemency before the convictions could be heard by an appeals court.
Helms explained in an internal memo that surfaced only recently that she reversed the jury after reviewing the evidence and finding the captain’s testimony more credible.
Drew Pusateri, a spokesman for McCaskill, said the senator is blocking Helms’s nomination until she receives more information about the general’s decision.
“As the senator works to change the military justice system to better protect survivors of sexual assault and hold perpetrators accountable, she wants to ensure that cases in which commanders overturned jury verdicts . . . are given the appropriate scrutiny,” Pusateri said.
A string of abuse scandals
The Air Force has been rattled by a string of sexual-abuse scandals over the past year, including the rape and assault of dozens of recruits by basic-training instructors at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
The latest embarrassment struck Sunday, when Arlington County police arrested the chief of the Air Force’s sexual-assault prevention branch and charged him with sexual battery. Police said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski was drunk when he approached a woman in a Crystal City parking lot and grabbed her breasts and buttocks. Maj. Mary Danner-Jones, an Air Force spokeswoman at the Pentagon, said Krusinski was “removed from his position immediately” when the Air Force learned of his arrest.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called Air Force Secretary Michael Donley to “express outrage and disgust” over Krusinski’s arrest and promise that the matter will be dealt with “swiftly and decisively,” according to a Pentagon statement.
The Pentagon has acknowledged that sexual assault in the military is widespread. It estimates that 19,000 offenses are committed each year but that fewer than one in six cases are officially reported. Many victims say they are reluctant to press charges because they lack faith in the military justice system. Of those cases that are reported, about one in 10 proceeds to trial.
It is rare for commanders to grant clemency. The Air Force said it has recorded 327 convictions over the past five years for sexual assault, rape and similar crimes, but only five verdicts have been overturned in clemencies.
Advocacy groups, however, said any decision to overrule a jury’s verdict for no apparent reason has a powerful dampening effect.
“When commanders and those in authority set convictions aside, reduce sentences or drop charges, it creates a chilling effect in the system,” said Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, a group that represents victims of sex crimes in the military.
Hagel last month said he would support a legislative proposal to change military law so that commanders could no longer set aside convictions for serious sex crimes. His decision marked a reversal for the Pentagon, which had long resisted the measure. Some lawmakers want more far-reaching legal changes.
A verdict appealed