WASHINGTON — An Air Force general's decision to overturn the conviction of a standout fighter pilot on sexual assault charges is stirring anger on Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers say they are losing patience with the military after a string of related scandals.
Several members of Congress have demanded that the Pentagon intervene after Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force in Europe, ordered the release of the fighter pilot from prison on Feb. 26 and tossed out his conviction without explanation.
The pilot, Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, had been found guilty in November by an all-male jury at Aviano Air Base in Italy in what was seen as a test case of the Air Force's willingness to tackle such crimes. But the decision to grant him clemency has infuriated many female lawmakers and advocacy groups, who said the outcome will discourage victims from reporting abuse.
"The appearances of this are devastating to victims of sexual assault throughout the military," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a member of the Armed Services Committee and a former prosecutor. "It looks like somebody taking care of one of their guys."
The Air Force has been grappling for the past year with an even bigger scandal in which basic-training instructors were charged with raping and assaulting dozens of female recruits at Lackland Air Base in Texas. Air Force leaders have bluntly described sexual misconduct as a "cancer" in the ranks that the service is struggling to combat.
Other branches of the armed services are experiencing similar problems. The Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing Wednesday on sexual assault problems in the military, the first time it has devoted a session to the subject in a decade.
The number of reported rapes, sexual assaults and cases of harassment has soared in recent years even as the Defense Department has adopted new programs to aid victims and crack down on perpetrators. Although military leaders say they have improved their handling of such cases, a Pentagon report last year estimated that only about one-sixth of victims report the crimes.
Advocacy groups said that the decision last month to overturn the jury's verdict will only deepen concerns about the system.
Franklin, a three-star commander based in Germany, is not a judge and did not observe the trial. But as the senior officer in Wilkerson's chain of command, he had final authority in the court-martial process. Air Force officials said he reviewed the entire trial record as well as a clemency appeal from the defendant and a personal letter from the accuser. He concluded that there was "insufficient evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt" and decided he "could not, in good conscience, sustain the conviction," according to Lt. Col. Paul Baldwin, an Air Force spokesman.
Franklin did not elaborate, and he declined a request for an interview. Under military law, a commander in his position has the authority to reduce a sentence or dismiss a conviction and is under no obligation to give a reason.
Baldwin said that the general, who is also a pilot, "does not personally know" Wilkerson and does not recall interacting with him socially or professionally.
It is very rare for a commander to grant clemency and dismiss a case entirely. Over the past five years, Air Force prosecutors have recorded 327 convictions for rape, sexual assault and similar crimes. Of those, five verdicts were overturned by commanders based on clemency, the Air Force said.
Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., sent a letter to new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week asking him to review the case.