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Morning Joe
updated 3/12/2013 11:18:38 AM ET 2013-03-12T15:18:38

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., wants to reform the military justice system after a fighter pilot’s sexual assault conviction by jury was overturned by a the perpetrator's commander.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., spoke out on Morning Joe against the military justice system after a fighter pilot’s sexual assault conviction was overturned by a military general.

General Craig A. Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force in Europe, ordered the release of fighter pilot James Wilkerson after a military jury convicted him in November of aggravated sexual assault. He was ordered to resign, forfeit his pay, and spend a year in jail.

“And with a stroke of pen last week, a general dismissed those charges against him. My heart is beating fast, I am so upset about this,” McCaskill testified in Congress last week. “I question now whether that unit, that that man returns to, whether there’s any chance a woman who is sexually assaulted would ever say a word because what that general just said is that jury’s decision doesn’t matter.”

Tuesday, on Morning Joe, McCaskill challenged the military justice system that allows commanders to overturn convictions without even stating a reason and creates a cultures that condones sexual misconduct.

There are an estimated 19,000 sexual assaults a year, but less than a fifth of those are reported to authorities. Of those reported, 92% were never tried–instead they were dismissed or settled with small penalties like fines or counseling. Of the few cases that are prosecuted, the accused’s commanders are the ones to decide their fates. It’s that conflict of interest that McCaskill said that prevents justice, “offends all of our sense of what’s right,” and perpetrates a military culture that keeps victims from speaking up about assault.

“I’m going to stay at this till we get a piece of justice for a whole lot of women out there many of whom are just afraid to come forward,” McCaskill said. “I want to make sure we are not just are we going after these crimes, but are we creating an environment for these women to come forward.”

Video: Sen. McCaskill: We need to take a 'hard look' at military sexual assault

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    >>> a colonel, james wilkerson, was convicted by a jury, a military jury , of sexual assault . he was sentenced to dismissal, forfeiture of pay and one year in jail. and with a stroke of a pen last week, a general dismissed those charges against him. my heart is beating fast right now. i am so upset about this. i question now whether that unit that that man returns to, whether there's any chance a woman who is sexually assaulted in that unit would ever say a word, because what that general just said is that jury's decision didn't matter.

    >> all right. welcome back to " morning joe ." that was senator claire mccaskill last week, calling on the pentagon to explain why an air force general was able to overturn a sexual assault conviction, and senator claire mccaskill joins from washington, mark halperin , mike barnicle and lee a gallagher are all back with us. senator, good to see you.

    >> thanks.

    >> going to talk budgets in a minute. what's happened since your testimony back then, pretty gripping and stunning stuff you have been talking about.

    >> i have been working on this as have some of my colleagues for a number of years and i want to make sure that we look at the rules of military justice and address what appears to be an outlier, nonetheless, completely unacceptable. that is the notion that after a jury trial , a commander can, without even having a reason, i mean, the rules actually say for any reason or no reason at all can overturn a jury's conviction, i think we need to take a look at that i spent a couple hours pentagon yesterday working on this. i have got a meeting today with the general of the air force , general welsh, in my office. and then we have a hearing all day tomorrow on this topic and i'm going to stay at this until we hopefully get a piece of justice for a whole lot of women thought that frankly, many of whom are just afraid to even come forward because of the way this crime has traditionally been treated within the military.

    >> do you think secretary hagel will make any difference here?

    >> well, in fact, i questioned secretary panetta about this when he was confirmed and i will say i was with some great prosecutors at the pentagon yesterday. i think the army is really on this. they are trying to turn around this culture, be much more aggressive of this crime i want to make sure this is true across all the branches and we look at the rule notice ucmj, which is the code for military justice , and make sure they make sense around this crime.

    >> so i mean, it's shocking, i am sure to a lot of americans watching this morning that you can have somebody convicted with a crime -- charge wad crimes, go you a threw all the evidentiary hearings, go through the trial itself, you can go through close, you can turn it over to the jury, the jury can go back, they can deliberate, they can come back out after a long drip racial, determining the fate of somebody's life, they can come down with a ruling and then a general can just overturn it with a signature for no reason at all what do you hear the justification of that to be in the pentagon?

    >> well, tradition clirk the convening authority is what it's called, it's the commander of the unit you has it complete control at every step of the process and obviously, this is for the good and discipline of the unit. but this clearly is jarring and it offends all of our sense of what's right in this country about our rule of law . that's why we have to take a look at it. i think the hearing tomorrow will be very important. a number of us plan on camping out for the day at this hearing and trying to see if we can't get after this in many ways, not just are we going after these cases you but what kind of environment are we creating for women that allowed them to come forward with this crime.

    >> while we are talking outrageous, more americans died in afghanistan yesterday, over the past week and yet we continue to send young americans to fight and die for a government that now is accusing us of being in cahoots with the taliban after karzai himself said he might side with the taliban. senator, this -- all of this nonsense, this outrage, actually, won't be an excuse for the united states to continue its endless war in afghanistan , will it?

    >> no. it will not. i think the president's been very clear that we are going to get out of there and -- by next year, we will be in a much different posture in afghanistan , which is good.

    >> will you oppose any troop extensions past next year if we -- if somebody comes -- says the troops need to stay another 18 months?

    >> i would oppose troop extensions unless there is some dramatic change on the ground that would dictate something differently. s if the's is like it is right now, of course i would oppose that what i'm going to be watching for, joe, how many contractors are we leaving on the ground? we have built an army for afghanistan they can't afford. so, how is this going to work going forward? how much are tax payers in this country going to still be on the line for building highways and power grid for karzai who is clearly off the reservation now? we have been their gdp in afghanistan for the last several years and if we are no longer there, you know, i want to make sure that american taxpayers have the full picture of what we may be asked to continue to do to support this guy that clearly doesn't appreciate what we've done.

    >> senator, mark halperin , you think forward rest of the year, a number of democratic colleagues have tough vote in all likelihood, on budget issues, immigration and gun control you have just come through re-election in a red/ purple state that end up not being as tough as you might have expected what advice do you have for democrats who are going to have these tough votes in states were voting with the president may hurt them at home?

    >> i don't think it is a matter of voting with the president. i always would tell my colleagues to vote what they believe in in terms of the principles that are at stake and then defend those votes. you know, and we have got good news. i mean, on the other side, it's a mess. i mean, they are -- they really have a civil war in their party right now. joe, your guys are fighting with each other. you've got people who are willing to compromise and who understand the beauty of comp plom nice our democracy and then you have people like ted cruz and some of the others that just think that they want to drive as hard as they can off the right edge of the world . the reason i could win, they nominated a flawed candidate that could win. it wasn't todd akin said, but what he believed.

    >> con grad lines bankrolling the efforts to let everybody in missouri know exactly what todd akin believed. i think we have extremes on both sides. think we are moving towards a deal.

    >> you know this bunnell that's ryan put out will help us move towards a deal. we are talking past each other on the budget . the house -- he put out a budget that is not credible outside of his own caucus. the democrats will probably put out a budget in the senate that can't pass the house. maybe the president can come in and make a deal with long-term debt, not short-term deficit.

    >> i think the democratic budget that goes on the floor is probably not a budget that most of the people in missouri would support either.

    >> you know about that.

    >> these political documents -- we will see. somebody in 2014 talking about $1 trillion in new taxes in missouri , missouri , either one of the states.

    >> here is the thing really ironic about this ryan budget , and i really think it is important to make this points, you realize the number one attack on democrats across the country last november, number one, in every campaign in florida, in the presidential, was the medicare cuts to providers in obama care what did ryan do, he didn't say repeal all of obama care, repeal the benefits, keep those same cuts that you they campaigned against. it is one of the most blatant acts of being disingenuous around politics in this country that i have ever seen.

    >> i look forward to the democratic budget .

    >> senator, speaking of trillions of dollars and flashing back now to afghanistan , where we know what we have lost in terms of lives, the tragic loss of lives, pallets of cash have been deliver neared bagram air force base in the 12 year we have been there. when or if are we going to get an accounting, the american taxpayers, going to get an accounting the amount of money that has been looted, stolen, by the afghan political hierarchy?

    >> well, we aren't doing cash like we did in iraq and even the early years of afghanistan . they have changed, we have made some progress on contracting and some of the excesses that cost our country probably north of $60 billion in waste and fraud in iraq, wither doing better there are still problems, part of that is we are trying to build stuff in a country where we don't have a secure environment there are instances were we have had to pay off the bad guys just to protect contractors to build a highway. yo know why we are infrastructure building in the middle of us trying to do a war. i don't know understand where we thought that was a good idea it is nation building . you can try to dress it up and take it out, but it is nation building and we have enough roads and bridges to build over here. we need to stop building stuff that they can't afford or sustain in these host nations.

    >> all right. senator claire mccaskill , as always, it is great to have you on the show. thank you very much.

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