Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., speaks at a news conference on Nov. 19 about her proposal to let military prosecutors rather than commanders make decisions on whether to prosecute sexual assaults in the armed forces.
(Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, AP)
WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - A bid to wrest control of sexual assault cases in the military away from commanders and replace them with career prosecutors died in the Senate on Thursday.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., failed to gain enough votes for her proposal to strip commanders of the authority to decide if sexual assault cases go to trial. She needed 60 votes to overcome a filibuster and received 55.
"I always hoped we could do the right thing here - and deliver a military justice system that is free from bias and conflict of interest - a military justice system that is worthy of the brave men and women who fight for us," Gillibrand said in a statement. "But today the Senate turned its back on a majority of its members."
Attention to sexual assault in the military spiked last year after a Pentagon report showed an estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact among troops 2012, an increase of one-third compared with 2010. About 3,000 cases of sexual assault were reported last year, and about 300 were prosecuted.
Recent changes in federal law affecting the Pentagon have changed the way the military handles sexual assault cases. Commanders can no longer overturn jury convictions, an issue that came to the fore last year when an Air Force general threw out a rape verdict against a subordinate pilot.
Other changes include revisions to the military's pre-trial process, known as an Article 32 hearing, to protect alleged victims from prying questions, and requiring civilian review of decisions by commanders to decline to prosecute cases. Victims are also automatically assigned an independent counsel when they lodge a complaint.
Most of those changes tracked with proposals made by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. McCaskill, like Gillibrand a member of the Armed Services Committee, agreed with military brass that decisions on prosecutions should remain with commanders.
On Thursday, McCaskill's bill to enhance those provisions won initial approval. Chief elements include grading commanders on creating a climate in which sexual assault and harassment are not tolerated, and eliminating the so-called "good soldier defense" to mitigate sentences for troops who have performed well on their jobs.
"This debate has been about one thing - getting the policy right to best protect and empower victims, and boost prosecutions of predators. I believe we're on the cusp of achieving that goal," McCaskill said in a statement.
Separately, the Army confirmed that it has suspended its top prosecutor for sexual assault cases while he is being investigated for allegedly groping another lawyer two years ago at a conference on sexual assault. Stars and Stripes first reported Thursday that Army Lt. Col. Joseph Morse had been suspended because of the allegations. George Wright, an Army spokesman, confirmed that he had been suspended while investigators looked into the charges.
By Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY
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