WASHINGTON (AP) - The commander whose decision to overturn a sexual assault conviction forced major changes in military law said Wednesday he is retiring, blaming public second-guessing of his actions as a distraction for the Air Force.
Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, who has served in the Air Force for 37 years, said after lengthy consideration and discussions with his family, he will leave the service at the end of the month. Franklin was widely criticized last year for reversing a jury's ruling in a sexual assault case, and he cited potential challenges to his future decisions and the ramifications in announcing his retirement.
"In the last 10 months as the commander of 3rd Air Force and 17th Expeditionary Air Force, my judgment has been questioned publicly regarding my decisions as a general court martial convening authority," Franklin said in a statement. "This is a distraction for the Air Force and for my role as a general court-martial convening authority.
"The last thing I want in this command is for people to feel they cannot bring a sexual assault case forward or feel it won't be dealt with fairly," he added. "In addition, public scrutiny will likely occur on every subsequent case I deal with. I am concerned this could jeopardize the privacy of both the victim and the accused."
Franklin, commander of the 3rd Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, overturned the conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy. Wilkerson had been found guilty in November 2012 of charges of abusive sexual contact, aggravated sexual assault and three instances of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. The incident had involved a civilian employee.
Wilkerson was sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the service, but after a review of the case Franklin overturned the conviction.
Outraged lawmakers - Democrats and Republicans - united behind significant changes in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, rewriting the law in the defense policy bill that Obama recently signed.
Military commanders were stripped of their ability to overturn jury convictions. The law also requires a civilian review if a commander declines to prosecute a case and requires that any individual convicted of sexual assault face a dishonorable discharge or dismissal.
The law also would provide victims with legal counsel, eliminate the statute of limitations for courts-martial in rape and sexual assault cases, and criminalize retaliation against victims who report a sexual assault.
"The Wilkerson case and Lt. Gen. Franklin's actions highlighted an egregious power within the chain of command that warranted change. It prompted a significant and historic reform to the military justice system, which is now the law of the land," said Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., who worked on the legislation.
Other members of Congress who were outspoken in their criticism of Franklin's actions said the retirement was the right move.
"His handling of sexual assault cases is the best possible illustration of why civilian review, elimination of commanders' ability to overturn convictions, and so many other protections are included in our recent defense bill," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who has pushed for taking decisions on prosecution out of the chain of command, said she was pleased that Franklin "will no longer serve in his post - but take no joy in this outcome as it's a painful reminder for the victims of military sexual assault that the deck is stacked against justice when commanders hold all the cards."
Top leaders in the Air Force spoke highly of Franklin's service. Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force Chief of Staff, commended Franklin for admirably serving the country.
"I fully respect his decision and the difficult circumstances under which he made it," Welsh said.
Gen. Frank Gorenc, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, said he regrettably supported Franklin's decision.