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Air Force Trains Special Lawyers For Sexual Assault Victims

Many victims of sexual assault in the military say only one experience comes close to the pain of the actual crime, and that's going to court to bring charges against the attacker.

This is believed to be one reason why so few victims come forward and report these crimes, and now the Air Force is hoping a new team of lawyers will help to change that.

At Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, a tall three-star general stands in front of a class of JAG officers — Air Force lawyers. He tells them they are pioneers in a new field, and then lays a heavy responsibility on them.

"Now, I don't want to put two much pressure on you, but I have to tell you: The eyes of the nation are on you," Lt. Gen. Richard Harding says.

Harding has high hopes for the officers who have come to this base for training in a new field; they are among the first special victims' counsels, or SVCs.

The SVCs are attorneys who do not represent the defendant, and they don't represent the government — they will stand up for the victims. Harding tells the audience that they can help address the agony many assault victims associate with the court-martial process.

"We know 85 percent of our victims don't report," he says. "Maybe if they understood the value of an SVC, some of them might feel a little bit more comfortable about reporting."

That's the long-term hope for the Special Victims' Counsel program, which is currently limited to the Air Force but could expand to other services. The immediate goal is to train around 50 lawyers who will help victims get through the legal process.

That's what the special victims counsels have already been trying to do in the 300 or so cases they've handled in the program's first few months. Capt. Lorraine Sult says her work as a counsel near Colorado Springs has underscored the idea that prosecutors don't speak for the victim.

"A prosecutor's goal, really, is the conviction," Sult says. "And my experience is that is not always what the victim's goal is."

Sometimes, watching out for her clients' interests means making sure that private information isn't disclosed unnecessarily. And sometimes, it means arguing for a different kind of justice.

"I had a client, she didn't want to go through the court-martial process, but she wanted the individual who assaulted her to get help," she says. "So we just worked through that together with the prosecutor. It ended up working out for her because she didn't have to go to court, but the person did leave the Air Force."

SVCs can also help airmen get transferred or deal with housing issues, or make sure they feel safe in the aftermath of the assault. Some victims also have to deal with the fact that reporting an assault can result in charges against them, for underage drinking, for example.

To the young lawyers who have been handpicked for this job, it can be a tough assignment. Aaron Kirk, a 31-year-old captain working in San Antonio, has heard some horrible stories.

"From unprofessional relationships in a sort of basic military trainee context, to very serious traumatic assaults," Kirk says.

No matter how serious the charges, SVCs stay with the victim, making sure, for example, that prosecutors don't offer perpetrators an easy plea bargain. Kirk says the job includes helping victims deal with disappointment.

"One of my clients had an acquittal, and it's devastating," he says.

Victims counsels have existed for years in the civilian world, but the idea is a new one for the military and has raised some touchy legal questions. Some Air Force judges have refused to give these attorneys standing in court, and the Air Force JAG office is fighting for that right.

Some defense attorneys say the presence of a third party in court could help stack the deck against a defendant. Victor Hansen, a retired Army JAG officer now teaching at New England Law Boston, says providing the victim with an attorney could create a kind of bias.

"That could be perceived, even by a military panel, that there's already been a determination that a victim is credible before the case even goes to trial," Hansen says.

That dispute could be important to the future of this program, although the Air Force says SVCs can still do a lot outside the courtroom.

Initial surveys show that victims have been happy with this new service. It will be much harder to prove that this program will convince more victims to report crimes, and it may be harder still to show that it can help reduce the number of assaults.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
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