- Associated Press - Thursday, April 25, 2013

PHOENIX (AP) — The Air Force’s decision to transfer a lieutenant colonel to a Tucson military base after his sexual assault conviction was overturned by a commander has outraged the family of the woman who made the allegations, adding to the growing criticism of the military justice system.

The family says Lt. Col. James Wilkerson’s transfer to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base on the southern edge of Tucson is upsetting because roughly half the woman’s family lives there. They’re planning a protest Thursday outside the base.

The news comes amid a congressional uproar over the Wilkerson case and follows heavy criticism of the military’s handling of another case involving sex-crime allegations in California.

“They could send him to a number of places,” said Dr. Stephen Hanks, an orthopedic surgeon in Tucson who is the brother of Col. Wilkerson’s accuser. “Why send him to a place where her family lives? It makes no sense.”

The woman, a civilian employee who works with service members, accused Col. Wilkerson of sexually assaulting her after a party at his house. Col. Wilkerson and his wife denied the charges but said the woman stayed at their house that night.

A military jury in November convicted Col. Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy, of aggravated sexual assault and other charges. He was sentenced to one year in prison and dismissal from the service.

But a commander overturned the verdict and dismissed the charges, saying he found Col. Wilkerson and his wife more believable than the alleged victim. Col. Wilkerson already has reported for duty in southern Arizona, where he will work as a safety officer for the 12th Air Force.

Lt. Col. Brett Ashworth, a Air Force spokesman, said military officials wouldn’t have known about the woman’s family in Tucson when Col. Wilkerson’s transfer was decided.

“His assignment was based on his qualifications and the needs of the Air Force,” Col. Ashworth said.

Col. Wilkerson declined an interview request from The Associated Press.

The decision by Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the 3rd Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, to overturn the verdict has been criticized by congressional leaders and advocates for confronting the problem of sexual assaults in the military.

The move led the Defense Department to propose that commanders be largely stripped of their ability to reverse criminal convictions of service members.

Under military law, a commander who convenes a court-martial is known as the convening authority and has the discretion to reduce or set aside guilty verdicts and sentences, or to reverse a jury’s verdict.

Protect Our Defenders, which advocates for military members who have been sexually assaulted, is calling for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to fire Gen. Franklin. The group’s president, Nancy Parrish, said the Wilkerson case demonstrates that the military justice system needs to be changed.

Commanders who have broad authority in letting cases go forward face a conflict of interest, Ms. Parrish said.

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