Friday, December 15, 2017
News Roundup

Reversal from Air Force infuriates lawmakers

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.

Comments
Festivus 2017: Submit your grievances and complaints here

Festivus 2017: Submit your grievances and complaints here

Here's your chance. Tell us what annoyed you in 2017, and we'll share it with our readers.
Updated: 8 minutes ago
After third fire at former Ybor City bathhouse, arrest is made

After third fire at former Ybor City bathhouse, arrest is made

TAMPA — A 46-year-old man was arrested Friday and accused of setting fire to a vacant Ybor City bathhouse hit by arson at least two other times earlier this year.Two Tampa police officers spotted smoke from the vacant building at 1512 E Eighth Ave. a...
Updated: 14 minutes ago

FHP: Overturned pick-up slowed traffic on northbound Howard Frankland

ST. PETERSBURG — A pick-up truck towing a car onto the northbound Howard Frankland Bridge overturned and crashed on the shoulder, causing back-ups for motorists trying to get to Tampa, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.The incident was reported...
Updated: 26 minutes ago

When Brenda Terry was 16 and living in St. Louis, she was a hostess and food runner at a sports bar where female employees wore cute, little cheerleading skirts. One night, she said, a patron grabbed her crotch. She ran to her management team and the...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Editorial: Warren’s smart approach on guns, domestic violence

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren would make it safer for victims and police alike with his plan to remove firearms from defendants charged with domestic violence. These cases are toxic enough, and having guns at the ready only adds to a dang...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Editorial: St. Petersburg council right to reject Bayfront deal

Editorial: St. Petersburg council right to reject Bayfront deal

The St. Petersburg City Council made the difficult but correct decision this week to reject the proposed sale of a local nonprofit’s minority stake in Bayfront hospital. Despite months of negotiations, there were too many questions, a few suspicions ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Deputies: Plant City men fled in stolen car, shot dog, hid in swamp

Deputies: Plant City men fled in stolen car, shot dog, hid in swamp

DOVER — Two Plant City men who ran from deputies and shot a dog were captured after a brief pursuit Thursday, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.They ditched the stolen car, ran away on foot, crossed through several yards and then ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Traffic grew heavy, and so did contractions, so Plant City mom delivers in car

Traffic grew heavy, and so did contractions, so Plant City mom delivers in car

BRANDON — Christine Stallworth had experienced false labor before so she decided to ignore the contractions she was feeling Thursday as she and her husband Clifford drove their two boys from home in Plant City to school in Tampa.But this time, 10 day...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Self-serve beer bar opens Saturday in downtown St. Pete

Self-serve beer bar opens Saturday in downtown St. Pete

Pour Taproom, a craft beer bar with 85 taps that customers pour their own brew from, will open at noon on Saturday, Dec. 16. The nearly 2,300-square-foot bar at 225 Second Ave. N has undergone extensive renovations, including a St. Petersburg-themed...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Pinellas sheriff’s investigator fired, could face criminal charges for involvement in child custody battle

Pinellas sheriff’s investigator fired, could face criminal charges for involvement in child custody battle

LARGO — A Pinellas sheriff’s child protective investigator has been fired and could face criminal charges after an investigation found she made a child custody recommendation to a judge as a favor to a friend.Jayne Johnson, who has worked for the She...
Updated: 1 hour ago