No service member should walk from a rape conviction
America's military leaders admit they haven't been able to stem, let alone reverse, the plague of sexual assault and abuse in the services. Recent decisions will only serve to make that problem worse -- and further erode any faith that victims may have in the code of military justice.
Those decisions suggest a code that says that even after due process and a conviction, the benefit of the doubt goes to the perpetrator.
That isn't justice. That is perversion of justice.
Anchorage-based Marine recruiter Nicholas Howard was convicted of rape. The sentence? Dishonorable discharge and a requirement to register as a sex offender. The presumed rationale? The military gives great weight to the disgrace of such a discharge and the loss of rank and career.
Those do have weight. But not enough.
Imagine that a career employee in a local company rapes a woman, stands trial and is convicted. He's fired from his job, loses all benefits and must register as a sex offender. Prison time? None. The judge explains that the loss of his job and reputation is sufficient punishment.
The community wouldn't stand for it. In recent years the Anchorage community didn't even stand for trifling bail terms for a cab driver accused of rape, and the outcry prompted stiffer bail terms.
If the military is going to wage war on sex crimes, then offenses must carry serious consequences -- in the case of Howard, the prosecutors sought a sentence of five to seven years. Convictions should mean prison time -- serious time. Otherwise it's all talk and sensitivity training, and those make no difference to predators, drunk or sober.
The Howard case went to the military because of a backlog of DNA testing at the state crime lab here in Anchorage. The military conviction satisfied local law enforcement, but the sentence stunned them. Imagine how the victim feels.
Congress, the Secretary of Defense and President Obama all have weighed in on the issue of sexual assault in the military. Two recent cases of convictions overturned by commanders without any public explanation have led to a senator's delay of the appointment of Lt. Gen. Susan Helms, a former astronaut, as vice commander of U.S. Space Command.
Many in Congress no longer trust generals with the authority to overturn convictions that resulted from due military process. They want some answers. So do most Americans -- including Alaskans, who stand second to none in our support of the U.S. military. But that support isn't blind allegiance. The military we support doesn't tolerate rape in the ranks or anywhere else.
BOTTOM LINE: If the military is serious in stopping sexual assaults, none convicted should walk away.