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Local reaction strong to proposed military sex assault bill

By Scott Harrison
Published On: Mar 06 2014 08:38:52 PM CST

Proposal in U.S. Senate would have taken authority for assault cases away from commanders and given it to civilian courts.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -

A controversial Senate bill that would have changed how military sex assault cases are investigated and prosecuted failed by five votes Thursday.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, would have taken authority for such cases out of the hands of commanders and given it to civilian courts.

"I'm torn.  There's two sides to it," said Carol Bishop of Colorado Springs when asked if she supported the proposed bill.  "Maybe there's an in-between where you have some civilians that are empaneled to look into the situation -- so it's not all military.  It's part civilian and part military."

The argument for rejecting the bill is that commanders need to retain the traditional chain of command, and handing authority to civilian courts would undermine discipline.

It's a tradition that Larry Borland of Colorado Springs doesn't want changed.

"If you're in a combat zone, you don't have the opportunity to pull somebody out and ship them off to the local D.A. or the local U.S. attorney," he said. 

Borland addressed the arguments supporting the bill: that victims are reluctant to report being assaulted out of fear of retaliation by commanders, and that commanders may be reluctant to thoroughly investigate cases.

"That's where military leadership has to make it clear that commanders are held accountable for what they do -- or what they don't do," he said.

Brad Laybourne, a Colorado Springs defense attorney, said passage of the bill would have meant more civilian clients for him and his fellow lawyers.  He said he doesn't know the best solution, but that handling cases remain largely the same in the military and civilian arenas.

"It's kind of shifting deck chairs on the Titanic," Laybourne said.  "If you're saying there are problems and injustices that happen in the military criminal justice system, those injustices happen in the civilian side as well."

Laybourne said key differences between prosecuting cases in military and civilian courts include the requirement of a unanimous verdict from a civilian jury but only a two-thirds majority on a military jury.  He said commanders had the authority to overrule jury verdicts until Congress ended that last year.

In 2013, Congress also passed a law making it illegal for a commander or superior officer to retaliate against an assault victim.

In a related bill on Thursday, the Senate approved a proposal by Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri that would leave authority for sex assault cases with commanders while appointing a special counsel to victims to help guide them through the military justice system.

McCaskill's bill had support from senior Pentagon leaders.

"It might be a way for them to strike a compromise," said Laybourne.  "To say that there's going to be this independent third party there, guiding a victim through the system, and somebody who maybe could be a whistle-blower if something inappropriate is happening."

Meanwhile, the Army revealed Thursday that Lt. Col. Joseph Morse, an officer who trains military prosecutors in sex assault cases, is himself under investigation for alleged sex abuse.  He's accused of groping a female Army lawyer during a Virginia conference in 2011.

Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado expressed disappointment at the failure of Gillibrand's bill, but promised to continue to work toward ending military sex assaults.

Representatives of Fort Carson, Peterson Air Force Base and the Air Force Academy declined comment on the matter.

District Attorneys Dan May of El Paso County and Jeff Chostner of Pueblo County were unavailable to discuss how passage of Gillibrand's bill might have affected their offices.

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