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AF chief prosecutor leaves service for victims advocacy group

November 26, 2014 (Photo Credit: Air Force)

The Air Force's former chief prosecutor, who won a sexual assault conviction against an F-16 pilot that was later overturned by a three-star general, is leaving the military for high-profile victims advocacy group Protect Our Defenders.

In a statement, retired Col. Don Christensen called the military criminal justice system "fundamentally broken" and said the only way to help fix it is from the outside.

"As a military prosecutor, I have personally seen the abuse and injustice victims of sexual assault face in the military," Christensen said in a statement released Nov. 26 by Protect Our Defenders. "At first, I truly believed as the Chief Prosecutor of the Air Force I could help fix the broken military justice system from the inside."

Then in February 2013, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, then-commander of the Third Air Force, overturned the conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a fellow F-16 pilot and the inspector general of Aviano Air Base, Italy. A jury of officers had found Wilkerson guilty of sexual assault just three months earlier, sentencing him to a year in prison and a dismissal that would have stripped him of his retirement.

The general's action overturned all that, reinstating Wilkerson into the Air Force.

Afterward, Christensen said in his statement, "I watched at least 30 commanders come to the defense of Wilkerson ... and blatantly attack the prosecution, judge, investigators, and the jury. ... I realized that in order to see substantial change, I would need to leave the Air Force, breaking a military tradition that has been a part of my family for over 150 years."

The Air Force ultimately reduced Wilkerson to the rank of major and kicked him out of the service after discovering that nearly a decade earlier he'd fathered a child with another woman while married. Franklin, who came under fire again after refusing to send a separate sexual assault case to trial, retired in January.

The law that allowed convening authorities like Franklin to overturn sexual assault convictions has since changed. The reform stopped short of removing such cases outside the chain of command. Military commanders continue to decide whether sex crimes should be prosecuted.

"Your rapists' boss should not decide whether to investigate or prosecute a sexual assault allegation or pick the jury," Christensen said in his statement. "The decision to prosecute is a legal decision that must be entrusted to professional, legally trained prosecutors, the jury should be randomly selected, not hand picked by the accused's commander. The military justice system must be changed. I am leaving the institution I love and joining Protect Our Defenders in order to fix this broken system."

The former prosecutor will serve as the nonprofit's president.

Christensen, who is the feature of a New York Times story, will not be giving interviews until next week, said Protect Our Defenders spokesman Brian Purchia.

In an interview with Air Force Times last April, Christensen described sitting next to a colleague when he learned Franklin had overturned Wilkerson's conviction.

"I turned to [him] and said, 'We just lost military justice.' I never thought [Franklin] would do this. I never saw this coming. I knew this would have huge, huge repercussions," he recalled.

"Up until this point, I had never really given [the power to overturn a conviction] a lot of thought, because I had never seen a convening authority do it," Christensen said. "This case brought it to the forefront. It makes sense that the convening authority doesn't need to be provided with that power.

"When you win or lose before a jury or judge, you understand it," he said. "This was surprising and disappointing."

Christensen described in The New York Times story delivering the news to the victim, Kim Hanks, that Wilkerson's conviction had been overturned. She sobbed, he said.

The prosecutor said he had no explanation but that "this will never happen again."

In a statement, the nonprofit's founder, Nancy Parrish, wrote "we are honored and humbled that Colonel Don Christensen has decided to join Protect Our Defenders, to stand with survivors and help us end the epidemic of sexual assault in the military, and stop the retaliation against victims. Col Christensen has dedicated his life to the military, and his distinguished career speaks for itself. ... With over two decades of experience as a military prosecutor, defense attorney, and judge, Col Christensen knows the ins and outs of our military justice system. He has seen, up close and personal, the lack of justice victims too often receive in the military justice system, which puts a victim's fate in the hands of the rapists' boss rather than professional, legally trained experts."

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