WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is recommending that military commanders be largely stripped of their ability to reverse criminal convictions of service members, a move that comes in response to a congressional uproar over an Air Force officer's decision to overturn a guilty verdict in a sexual assault case, the Pentagon said Monday.
Hagel has asked his staff to draft legislation that would require that cases go through the U.S. Court of Military Appeals, and that senior officers no longer have the authority to set aside guilty findings, except in limited, minor offenses that ordinarily don't warrant a court martial. The commanders, however, would retain their ability to participate in plea bargains and to reduce sentences, but they would have to defend the lesser sentence in writing.
In a written statement Monday, Hagel said that, if enacted by Congress, the changes "would help ensure that our military justice system works fairly, ensures due process and is accountable. These changes would increase the confidence of service members and the public that the military justice system will do justice in every case."
The change requires congressional action, but lawmakers have already begun looking into the matter in response to a furor over a recent Air Force sexual assault case. Hagel said the new recommendations have the full support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the service secretaries.