An airman has been found not guilty of sexual assault after his case was transferred from Europe to Washington following a three-star general’s initial decision not to proceed with a court-martial.
A military panel of three lieutenant colonels and four master sergeants acquitted Senior Airman Brandon Wright on Wednesday evening, according to Wright's two military defense attorneys: Maj. Jacob Ramer and Capt. Patrick Hughes.
"It was apparent throughout the full eight days of trial that each and every panel member understood the importance of their role and gave their full attention to resolving the question before them," Ramer and Hughes said in a statement Thursday to Air Force Times. "Through this ordeal, Senior Airman Wright's unit and those close to him were monumental in maintaining his resilience and helping him through the most difficult time of his young life. He is thankful for these people, and grateful that he is finally able to put this behind him and move forward with the rest of his life."
Wright had been accused of aggravated sexual assault in connection with a July 2012 incident while he was stationed at Aviano Air Base, Italy. Wright had also been charged with rape, but the prosecution later withdrew that charge.
Retired Col. Don Christensen, the Air Force’s former top prosecutor who joined the victims-advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, issued a statement on Wednesday critical of how the military justice system handled this case.
“This case is Exhibit A of the devastating consequences of our failed military justice system,” Christensen said in the statement. “Due to multiple errors committed by the command-driven justice system, both parties have had their lives on hold for more than three years awaiting a verdict.
“The survivor in this case endured a slew of avoidable hearings and appeals for over three years that repeatedly delayed her from having her day in court," Christensen wrote. "An empowered independent military prosecutor based justice system would have ensured the administration of swift and efficient justice, something all of our military service members deserve.”
Christensen concluded that the military's justice system was broken after securing a sexual-assault conviction against Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, an F-16 pilot and Aviano inspector general, only to see that conviction ovetrurned in February 2013 by then-Third Air Force commander Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin.
In September 2013, Franklin also decided not to prosecute Wright on rape and related charges. Only three days later, acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning transferred the case to Washington, where Maj. Gen. Sharon Dunbar, then-commander of the Air Force District of Washington, ruled in March 2014 that the Wright would face a court-martial.
The Air Force's decision to reinvestigate the Wright case came as Franklin was dealing with a firestorm of controversy for overturning the Wilkerson conviction, which outraged lawmakers, such as Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrad, D-New York. McCaskill called for Franklin to be fired.
Wilkerson would later leave the Air Force as a major after he was disciplined for fathering a child with another woman while he was married eight years earlier. In January 2014, Franklin announced he would retire because “my judgment has been questioned publicly regarding my decisions as a general court martial convening authority.” He left the Air Force as a two-star general.
After Franklin’s decision to dismiss charges against Wright, Capt. Maribel Jarzabek, the special victims counselor for the alleged victim, complained that her client had not been treated fairly during the investigation and that Franklin had refused to meet her before deciding not to prosecute Wright.
“The investigating officer was badgering her" about how long the assault lasted, Jarzabek said for a January 2014 Air Force Times story. "He was incredibly biased" and asked questions that violated her privacy, she said.