After Air Force Capt. Matthew Herrera was court-martialed and convicted of the aggravated sexual assault of a female second lieutenant, his conviction was reduced by Lieutenant General Susan Helms to an indecent act. Helms— who did not watch the trial—was reportedly urged by her own legal adviser to reject the request to dismiss the sexual assault verdict. When Helms was tapped this March to be vice commander of the Air Force Space Command, Senator McCaskill put a hold on her nomination, due to ongoing concerns over the Herrera case.
On June 17, Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto wrote an essay deeming McCaskill’s hold “an effort to criminalize male sexuality,” calling the senator’s description of the victim as a “survivor” “more than a little histrionic,” and suggesting the “hanky-panky” came about because the assaulted woman “acted recklessly” by drinking and then getting into a car with a man. Efforts by McCaskill and others to address the issue of military sexual assaults, he wrote, amounted to a “war on men.”
Below, McCaskill’s response:
I had reservations about responding to the multiple columns from the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto, in which he makes a lengthy and spirited defense of a convicted sex offender.
But, the sad fact is that Mr. Taranto’s disregard for the severity of sexual assault is not nearly as uncommon as it should be—in either civilian or military culture. That one of the most respected and widely read papers in the country saw fit to repeatedly offer Mr. Taranto such a large platform is a reminder of how important our efforts, and those of many of my colleagues, to tackle the prevalence of sexual assault in our military, have been—and of how far we still have to go.
It’s notable that Mr. Taranto spends little time discussing the actions of Lt. General Susan Helms—the commander in question, whose lifetime of service to the U.S. Air Force is worthy of our gratitude and appreciation. Instead, he re-litigates the facts of a case he didn’t witness, comparing the recklessness of sending a text message or having a drink, to the “recklessness” involved in sexually assaulting another person.
Ultimately, in the sexual assault case he references against Capt. Matthew Herrera, the task of examining the evidence and hearing the witnesses’ testimony doesn’t belong to columnists or elected officials—it belonged to a judge and a jury—two words that you won’t find in Mr. Taranto’s piece.
A judge and jury had the opportunity to hear the case, and decide if Capt. Herrera committed sexual assault, and they found him guilty. It is also important to note that this was a jury selected by Lt. General Helms.
Under current military law, Lt. General Helms had the power to substitute her own judgment for that of the jury’s. She ultimately did so, vacating the jury's guilty verdict against Capt. Herrera, against the advice of her own legal counsel, and despite not having attended the trial.
What she did was not a crime. But it was an error, and a significant one. I’m hopeful that our work this year will remove the ability of a commander to substitute their judgment, and sometimes also their ingrained bias, for that of a jury who has heard the witnesses and made a determination of their credibility and the facts of the case.
I believe we’re all accountable for the power we exercise and the decisions we make, even if we have the legal right to make them.
Many of us answer to our employers or supervisors. I answer to the voters of Missouri. And the Vice Commander of Air Force Space Command, the position for which Lt. General Helms was nominated, answers to the U.S. Senate in the form of a confirmation vote. My “hold” on this vote, which Mr. Taranto finds so objectionable, means that I object to her nomination being unanimously and silently confirmed, and that a vote on her nomination should proceed only with the support of three-fifths of the Senate.
I met with Lt. General Helms, looked her in the eye, and talked with her at length about this case. And while I find her situation unfortunate, it’s important that we remember who the real victim is in all this: the woman who was brave enough to come forward in a difficult culture and environment, sit in a witness stand, and tell the story of her sexual assault. A woman who then watched the decision of a jury—a jury that heard the testimony offered by both the victim and the defense—overturned by someone who was never even in the courtroom.
Mr. Taranto says that I’m involved in a crusade to “criminalize male sexuality.” For decades, from my time as a courtroom prosecutor and throughout my career in public service, I have indeed done my best to criminalize violence. And I have never subscribed to Mr. Taranto’s bizarre and deeply out of touch understanding of sexual assault as somehow being a two-way street between a victim and an assailant.
Mr. Taranto’s arguments contribute to an environment that purposely places blame in all the wrong places, and has made the current culture and status quo an obstruction to sorely needed change.
My colleagues and I are fighting not to criminalize men, but to bring the cowards who commit sexual assault to justice. And our fight won't stop until we give the brave men and women of our military the resources and justice they deserve.
U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill is a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, and a former courtroom prosecutor.