Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered the military to exercise independent judgment in sexual-assault cases, effectively reversing earlier comments by President Barack Obama.
"There are no expected or required dispositions, outcomes, or sentences in any military-justice case, other than what result from the individual facts and merits of a case and the application to the case of the fundamentals of due process of law," Hagel wrote in an Aug. 6 memo that is to be disseminated throughout the military, reports The New York Times.
The memo is an attempt to undo potential damage to sexual-assault cases from Obama's May 6 White House remarks, when he said that sexual offenders in the military ought to be "prosecuted, stripped of their position, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged."
His comments have backfired, with judges and defense lawyers in ongoing assault cases
arguing that his words as commander in chief amounted to "unlawful command influence" on jurors, who could interpret them as an order for a specific outcome.
Hagel's memo quoted Obama's own legal counsel, Kathryn Ruemmler
, the Times reports. She said the president "expects all military personnel who are involved in any way in the military justice process to exercise their independent and professional judgment."
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col Todd Breasseale told the Times, "The secretary has been consistently clear here, and his commanders understand his intent," noting that the memo "speaks for itself."
But some lawyers have questioned the new directive.
"They are trying to unring the bell," said attorney Richard Scheff, who cited unlawful command influence on behalf of his client, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, who is accused of sexually assaulting an Army captain with whom he had an adulterous affair.
"I don't know how President Obama can direct that certain types of punishment be administered and now you are supposed to ignore it. How does that work," he asked in the Times article.
Obama's remarks were in response to a reporter's question, and followed the release of a Pentagon survey showing that an estimated 26,000 men and women in the military were sexually assaulted last year, up from 19,000 in 2010.
At the end of the last fiscal year, Sept. 30, there were roughly 1,600 sexual assault cases within the military, either awaiting action from commanders or the completion of a criminal investigation.
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