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Why Pentagon's progress against sexual assault is so slow

The military legal system is seen as often punishing victims of sexual assault instead of perpetrators. Pentagon efforts to make headway depend largely on improving prosecutions.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / August 29, 2012

Air Force Staff Sgt. Luis Walker (r.) headed to his trial for sexual assault July 20. He was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Billy Calzada/San Antonio Express News/AP

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Washington

For Myla Haider, working as a criminal investigator prosecuting rape cases for the US Army was difficult and often disheartening.

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On one occasion, her unit's commander – skeptical of a reported rape victim's story – told her to advise the victim of the penalties for making a false statement and interrogate her "until I got the truth out of her."

On another occasion, a defendant who had failed a lie detector test was acquitted due to botched investigation, Ms. Haider says. The military judge ordered his belongings returned to him, including a bottle of liquor from the night of the alleged attack.

"The judge said, 'You can give this bottle back to the suspect so he can celebrate.' "

It points to a military legal system that, despite years of scrutiny and efforts to improve, remains skeptical of victims of sexual assault and reluctant to bring offenders to justice, critics say.

The most effective way to decrease rates of rape would be to increase rates of prosecution for perpetrators, said troops in a 2011 Air Force survey, the Pentagon's most comprehensive sexual-assault survey to date.

But data show that while 40 percent of civilian sexual-assault allegations are prosecuted, "this number is a staggeringly low 8 percent in the military," according to a statement from Reps. Niki Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts and Michael Turner (R) of Ohio.

There are signs of progress, with the number of prosecutions inching upward and an increasing awareness of the military's tendency to antagonize accusers while failing to scrutinize the serial offenders. But many involved say there is a long way to go.

A Pentagon study released in April shows the nature of the challenge facing the military. It found that nearly 3,200 people reported being sexually assaulted in 2011. Of these cases, some 2,400 could be prosecuted because they were "unrestricted" – meaning the victims came forward and agreed to proceed with a court case. These cases resulted in 191 convictions. Punishments for the convicts included jail time (78 percent), a reduction in rank (82 percent), fines (68 percent), and discharges or dismissal (64 percent).

It is a history of prosecution that has not improved considerably since the issue of sexual assault came to public consciousness during the infamous Tailhook scandal in 1991, critics charge. At a Las Vegas convention of the Tailhook Association, which supports naval aviation, hundreds of sailors, many of whom had been drinking alcohol, lined hotel hallways and groped and assaulted women in what became known as the "gauntlet."

In all, 87 women came forward saying that they had been assaulted.

Ultimately, efforts to prosecute offenders in the Tailhook scandal were deemed a half-hearted failure by the Pentagon's inspector general at the time. According to an internal report, Rear Adm. Duvall Williams Jr. – who spearheaded the investigation – told the assistant secretary of the Navy that "a lot of the female Navy pilots are go-go dancers, topless dancers, or hookers."

He also observed that a female officer who had come forward with a complaint had used profanity in describing her assault. "Any women who would use the F-word on a regular basis would welcome this type of activity," he reportedly said.

Today, failure to prosecute some prominent sexual-assault cases is a key reason many victims never come forward to report the crime.

The Pentagon's annual report on sexual assault estimated that only 14 percent of the 19,000 service members estimated to have experienced assault during the course of one year actually came forward.

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