ARLINGTON, Va., –– The Defense Advisory Committee on the Investigation, Prosecution and Defense of Sexual Assault in the Armed Forces met this week to discuss and review their fifth annual report, due to the Secretary of Defense and to the Committees on Armed Services of the Senate and the House of Representatives by March 30.
The committee was established in 2016 to advise the Secretary of Defense on instances involving rape, forcible sodomy, sexual assault and other sexual misconduct involving members of the Armed Forces. The report describes their recent activities and establishes their goals for the next year.
In September 2022, the group established three subcommittees: a case review subcommittee, a policy subcommittee and a special projects subcommittee.
The case review subcommittee provides advice to the committee after reviewing cases involving allegations of sexual misconduct. The case review subcommittee will examine appellate decisions of sexual assault cases throughout the next year.
Throughout the year, the committee heard from service members who were convicted of sexual misconduct by all-white panels, or who chose trial by military judge alone because they were uncomfortable with the all-white panel.
The group discussed ways to review the race, gender and demographics of military panels on Wednesday after hearing from two public commenters seeking to create protections for what they called the “falsely accused.”
Erik J. Burris, a former Major in the U.S. Army, called his conviction of rape “unjust” and a “nightmare.” Burris blamed the political climate for his eight-year confinement. A second commenter, Darin Lopez, wrote to propose a Falsely Accused Individual Review (FAIR) unit, committee or subcommittee, that could make recommendations to appellate services and/or board of corrections for adjudication.
“I was convicted of a sexual assault in 2014 against my plea of not guilty and was sentenced to three years confinement and a bad conduct discharge,” he said. “Today, again I am here in the interest of Justice… I was unjustly and wrongfully convicted and after exhausting all options proposed a way forward for wrongfully convicted Veterans to seek relief.”
While the committee did not agree to such a subcommittee, they did create a plan to examine military panel composition throughout the next year.
“In 2023, the CRSC will study the issues of race and gender in panel selection,” the report says. “Based on testimony, the Committee believes there is a public perception that military panels are not diverse and that the convening authority’s ability to hand-pick the panel introduces a perception of conscious or unconscious bias.”
Colonel Jeff Bovard said in committee Wednesday that the case review subcommittee should also look specifically at conviction rates in penetrative sexual offenses in the next year.
“There’s a huge disparity in conviction rates between penetrative offenses and general offenses as a whole,” Bovard said in committee Wednesday. “There’s not a single (military) service that had more than a 50% conviction rate.”
The special projects subcommittee also laid out a plan for the next year. It is meant to review statutory requirements relating to misconduct, identify trends and variances between military departments and identify criteria for a uniform system of military justice.
The special projects subcommittee will spend the next year looking into the efficacies of the military’s newly founded Office of Special Trial Counsel. The office represents a historic change in the way the military prosecutes sexual assault offenses; if a service member commits an offense under the office, a military prosecutor will now decide –– independent of the accused’s chain of command — whether to send charges to a court-martial.
This year’s report will be the first to reach Congress since 2020. In January 2021, the Secretary of Defense suspended all Department of Defense advisory committee operations and reviewed each committee’s alignment with the department’s new strategic plan.The committee’s suspension meant that two annual reports — one in 2021 and another in 2022 –– were not completed.