After years defending soldiers accused of drug crimes and sexual assault, Col. Don Christensen wanted to atone for his sins of freeing men who didn't deserve it. But when he turned the tables, the military was not so pleased.
In the New York Times, Robert Draper profiled Christensen's political rise and entry into the mire of handling sexual assault within the military's ranks.
Christensen's early experience in a military courtroom was primarily as a defense attorney, with most of his early cases involving drug possession or use. During that time, he also represented nine men accused of rape. He won acquittals for six of them — the other three cases were thrown out before trial. Christensen developed an expertise in unraveling a victim's testimony by, among other things, questioning her demeanor before and after the assault. He kept to himself how distasteful he found these moments — how he imagined taking the women aside after the whole thing was over and whispering, I believe you.
When Christensen got the opportunity to serve as prosecutor, he jumped at the chance to defend the victims of sexual assault in the armed services. He "personally tried roughly 40 sexual-assault cases and supervised the prosecution of another 300. His decision to focus on sex crimes was unconventional in the military."
Among his cases was that of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a high ranking Air Force official accused of digitally penetrating a sleeping female houseguest until his wife walking in on his crime. Christensen believed the story of Wilkerson's accuser Kim Hanks, a 48-year-old civilian who'd been at the Wilkerson's home for a party and ended up stranded without a ride home. The couple offered her a free bed to spend the night, and the rest is history.
Christensen pursued the case with full force and zeroed in on Wilkerson's wife, who changed her story to protect her husband. Eventually, she admitted on the stand that she didn't "know" why Hanks would lie about her husband "having put his finger in her vagina." Wilkerson was found guilty and sentenced to one year behind bars as well as dishonorable discharge... until he wasn't.
From Andrews Air Force Base, General Franklin overturned Wilkerson's conviction and reinstated the Lt. Col to full rank. Christensen took understandable issue upon hearing the news, and he met with now outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at Hagel's request. Christensen recommended Article 60, which strips commanders of the ability to overturn jury verdicts, and thanks to Hagel's urging, the measure was signed into law by President Obama last year.
All of this change was great. Then came down the sham verdict of Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, the man accused of sexually assaulting a subordinate twice as well as soliciting compromising photos from his female soldiers. Instead of a harsher sentence, Sinclair pled to lesser offenses, retired at a lower rank and paid a $20,000 fine. In the meantime, the military held forums and "stand down" days in support of sexual assault victims, which many survivors felt was just for show.
"The presenters asked us if we felt things were improving," she said. "We all laughed. Sinclair was happening then. He proved that it was a joke."
As Christensen pushed back against the military's procedures, he simultaneously pushed back against his own superiors, who felt offended and undermined by his meetings with Hagel. Soon, Christensen was told at his annual performance review that he was being sent out to pasture.
Christensen nearly laughed when he learned of this "promotion." The appellate court was widely understood to be the Air Force's dumping ground for JAG misfits.
The NYT profile continues, describing Christensen's final case as a prosecutor. It's a great piece that we should all read. Change may still be on the way for the military and how the organization handles sexual assault, even if it turns out that the squeaky wheel may see his own career in ruins.
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