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Accuser in Air Force sexual assault case 'frustrated' at overturned verdict

Victims of sexual assault in the military told their stories on Capitol Hill Wednesday. Lawmakers say the Pentagon has failed to protect its own ranks from sexual assault. NBC's Michael Isikoff reports.

The victim in an Air Force sexual assault case that has provoked a firestorm in Congress says she was “absolutely stunned” when she learned that a top general had erased the conviction of her alleged assailant and that the decision will undermine the Pentagon’s efforts to encourage women to report such attacks.

“It looks to me like he is protecting one of his own,” Kimberly Hanks, 49, told NBC News in an exclusive interview, about the decision of Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force based in Ramstein, Germany, to overturn a jury’s verdict convicting a F-16 combat pilot of sexually assaulting her.

The message sent to other women who have been sexually assaulted, Hanks said, is “don’t bother” coming forward and reporting it. “It’s not worth it. Don’t bother.”

Hanks agreed to be named publicly for the first time and granted an hour-long interview that was arranged by Protect our Defenders, an advocacy group that has sought to call attention to the military sexual assault problem. In the interview, Hanks recounted her personal ordeal last year when, as a physician’s assistant assigned to a hospital at Aviano Air Base in Italy, she accused Lt. Col. James Wilkerson — an F-16 combat pilot who was an inspector general at the base — of sexually assaulting her in his home. Hanks spoke in Washington, D.C., on the eve of a Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing on sexual assaults in the military that is expected to focus in part on her case.

Although she wrestled at first about what to do about what happened to her, she decided she needed to step forward and report it to Air Force authorities.  

“I didn’t know if I could live with myself not doing anything about it,” Hanks said. “I couldn’t live personally with the knowledge that I was assaulted sexually and let this man go about his business while I had to live with the shame and the guilt. … I couldn’t let this guy get away with it.”

Wilkerson’s lawyer, Frank Spinner, told NBC News that Hanks had “lied about multiple aspects of the case” and there was “no physical corroboration” of her claims that his client had assaulted her. But Hanks’ account of events got powerful support late Tuesday when Col. Don Christensen, the Air Force’s chief  prosecutor who personally tried her sexual assault case, described her in an interview with NBC News as “one of the most credible witnesses I’ve ever dealt with.” Christensen said he spent hours interviewing Hanks and found her entirely “truthful.” “She never changed her story. It was always 100 percent consistent,” he said.

Hanks recounted how, just after months after arriving at Aviano Air Base, she was socializing with friends one evening after a concert and wound up at the home of Wilkerson and his wife, neither of whom she had known. Because of the late hour, she said she accepted an invitation to spend the night in the couple’s guest bedroom and went to sleep.  

Later in the evening, “I had felt some discomfort. The lights came on which woke me up. And — I opened my eyes and Wilkerson was in bed with me with his hands down my pants,” Hanks said. She said his “face was six inches in mine.” (She declined to discuss further details, but prosecutor Christensen said Hanks testimony was that Wilkerson had fondled her breasts and inserted his hands into her vagina, providing the basis for his conviction on aggravated sexual assault.) Hanks said at that moment Wilkerson’s wife had entered the room. “And she told me to get the hell out of her house,” Hanks said. “I mean, I thank her. Because if she hadn’t come in, I don’t know what could have happened.”  

According to the Air Force Times, Wilkerson's wife, Beth, testified at trial and denied she found her husband in the bed with Hanks, saying she asked her to leave because she was talking on her cell phone and walking around the house making the wooden floors creak. 

The military jury believed Hanks’ account, convicted Wilkerson, stripped him of his rank  and sentenced him to a year in a military brig. Hanks said she thought her ordeal was over — only to learn two weeks ago that Gen. Franklin — who never attended the trial — had exercised his authority as “convening authority” of the court martial to reverse the conviction. Wilkerson was freed from the brig at Charleston, S.C., had his rank restored.

The case has caused an uproar on Capitol Hill, where members are demanding an investigation of Franklin’s action and pressing for legislation to strip a military commander’s authority to overturn jury verdicts. “The fact that one person can overturn a punishment determined by a judge or a jury, flies I the face of justice,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat and member of the House Armed Services Committee.

An Air Force spokesman said Gen. Franklin made his decision to overturn the verdict “only after his very lengthy, careful and thorough consideration” of the trial record and related materials submitted by all parties in the case. He concluded “that there was insufficient evidence to support a finding of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Hanks said she is “frustrated” but has no regrets.

“I did the right thing,” she said. “I reported it. I told the truth.”     

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