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Military Lets Many Sex Offenders Off the Hook

Records show little jail time in assault cases

February 10, 2014
By RICHARD LARDNER & YURI KAGEYAMA, Associated Press , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

TOKYO - After a night of heavy drinking at the Globe and Anchor, a watering hole for enlisted Marines in Okinawa, Japan, a female service member awoke in her barracks room as a man was raping her, she reported. She tried repeatedly to push him off. But wavering in and out of consciousness, she couldn't fight back.

A rape investigation, backed up by DNA evidence, ended with the accused pleading guilty to a lesser charge, wrongfully engaging in sexual activity in the barracks. He was reduced in rank and confined to his base for 30 days, but received no prison time.

Fast forward a year. An intoxicated service member was helped into bed by a male Marine with whom he had spent the day. The Marine then sexually assaulted him, records show. The accused insisted the sex was consensual, but he was court-martialed, sentenced to six years in prison, busted to E-1, the military's lowest rank, and dishonorably discharged.

Article Photos

AP Photo - In this March 23, 2008 file photo, protesters shout a slogan during a rally against the alleged assault of a 14-year-old girl by an American serviceman in Japan’s Okinawa islands.

The two cases, both adjudicated by the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, are among more than 1,000 reports of sex crimes involving U.S. military personnel based in Japan between 2005 and early 2013. Obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the records open a rare window into the world of military justice and show a pattern of random and inconsistent judgments.

The Associated Press originally sought the records for U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan after attacks against Japanese women raised political tensions there. They might now give weight to members of Congress who want to strip senior officers of their authority to decide whether serious crimes, including sexual assault cases, go to trial.

The AP analysis found the handling of allegations verged on the chaotic, with seemingly strong cases often reduced to lesser charges. In two rape cases, commanders overruled recommendations to court-martial and dropped the charges instead.

Fact Box

FINDINGS SHOW LITTLE JAIL TIME, EVEN LESS FAITH IN SYSTEM

Hundreds of records detailing sex-crime investigations involving U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan show most offenders were not incarcerated, suspects received light punishments after being accused of serious violations, and victims increasingly were wary of cooperating with investigators.

NAVY USE OF NONJUDICIAL PUNISHMENT ON RISE

Data from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service shows that Navy commanders in Japan increasingly are resolving sexual assault cases through nonjudicial punishment rather than courts-martial. From 2006 to 2009, they favored courts-martial, but from 2010 to 2012 they were three times more likely to choose nonjudicial punishment. In 2012, just one Navy sex-abuse case went to a court-martial, while 13 were handled through nonjudicial punishment.

MOST DON'T GET PRISON TIME

The NCIS documents show that out of 473 Marines and sailors accused of sex offenses, 179 were given some punishment, and 68 went to prison. Marines were accused more frequently than sailors, though they are stationed in Japan in similar numbers. But Marines were three times more likely to get prison sentences. The Air Force data showed that out of 124 airmen accused over five years, 17 received prison time and 42 received some other punishment. In 21 Air Force cases, the sole punishment was a letter of reprimand.

VICTIMS GIVING UP

The NCIS data show a growing number of accusers dropping out of investigations, either by recanting the allegations or simply declining to cooperate further. In 2006, 13 accusers recanted or stopped cooperating, and 28 did so in 2012. The Air Force data showed a decline, and the Army data was incomplete.

Even when military authorities agreed a crime had been committed, the suspect was unlikely to serve time.

Nearly two-thirds of 244 service members whose punishments were detailed in the records were not incarcerated. Instead they were fined, demoted, restricted to their bases or removed from the military. In more than 30 cases, a letter of reprimand was the only punishment.

Among the other findings:

- The Marines were far more likely than other branches to send offenders to prison, with 53 prison sentences out of 270 cases. By contrast, of the Navy's 203 cases, more than 70 were court-martialed or punished in some way. Only 15 were sentenced to time behind bars.

- The Air Force was the most lenient. Of 124 sex crimes, the only punishment for 21 offenders was a letter of reprimand.

- Victims increasingly declined to cooperate with investigators or recanted, a sign they may have been losing confidence in the system. In 2006, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which handles the Navy and Marine Corps, reported 13 such cases; in 2012, it was 28.

Taken together, the sex crime cases from Japan, home to the largest number of U.S. military personnel based overseas, illustrate how far military leaders have to go to reverse a spiraling number of sexual assault reports.

In one case, a woman alleged that a sailor assaulted her. Later, she confronted him in a recorded conversation. She accused him of pushing her down "for sex purposes," after which he apologized for hurting her "in that way."

An Article 32 hearing, the military's version of a grand jury, recommended a court-martial on rape charges, but the commanding officer said no. The charges were dropped.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who leads the Senate Armed Services' personnel subcommittee, said the records are "disturbing evidence" that there are commanders who refuse to prosecute sexual assault cases.

The AP story "shows the direct evidence of the stories we hear every day," said Gillibrand, who leads a group of lawmakers from both political parties pressing for further changes in the military's legal system.

"The men and women of our military deserve better," said Gillibrand, D-N.Y. "They deserve to have unbiased, trained military prosecutors reviewing their cases, and making decisions based solely on the merits of the evidence in a transparent way."

Air Force Col. Alan Metzler said the Department of Defense has been open in acknowledging that it has a problem.

"We have owned that," he said. "We have been public about it."

Metzler, deputy director of the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said the changes in military law and policy made by Congress and the Pentagon are creating a culture where victims trust that their allegations will be taken seriously and perpetrators will be punished. The cases in Japan preceded reforms the Pentagon implemented in May, according to defense officials.

The military, Metzler noted, is making progress. The number of sexual assault cases taken to courts-martial military-wide has grown steadily, from 42 percent in 2009 to 68 percent in 2012, according to department figures. In 2012, of the 238 service members convicted, 74 percent served time.

That trend is not reflected in the Japan cases. Out of 473 sexual assault allegations against sailors and Marines between 2005 and 2013, just 116, or 24 percent, ended up in courts-martial.

Further, the 238 convictions are a small number compared with the estimated 26,000 sex crimes that may have occurred that year across the military, according to the department's anonymous survey of military personnel. Sex crimes are vastly underreported in both military and civilian life.

 
 

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