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Convicted of sex assault - then cleared - fighter pilot sparks protest at Tucson base

The family of a woman who accused a U.S. fighter pilot of rape spoke at protest Thursday outside the Tucson Air Force base where that airman recently was transferred after his military conviction was erased, his prison sentence voided and his discharge overturned.

The brother of Kim Hanks said the family came to “voice outrage at the military’s betrayal of our sister” and he questioned why Air Force commanders chose to send Wilkerson to Tucson where much of Hanks’ family resides. 

Kim Hanks reported that Lt. Col. James Wilkerson assaulted her in March 2012 at his former home on the Aviano Air Base In Italy. 

A jury composed of five military officers found Wilkerson guilty of aggravated sexual assault in November. Wilkerson, who declined comment for this article through an Air Force spokesman, then was sentenced to a year in the brig and ordered to be removed from the service. In February, however, Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin reviewed the case, quashed the conviction and dismissed all of the punishments.

“This ordeal has been extremely painful both for her and the entire family. It is unspeakably hard to watch Kim endure such treatment from the Air Force,” said Dr. Stephen Hanks, a Tucson physician and sibling of Kim Hanks, who is still working at Aviano as a civilian physician's assistant. “She has been forced to withstand an unfair amount of scrutiny and public slandering, hostility, and blame for the crime that was committed against her.

“When the Air Force was notified that Wilkerson was being reassigned to the town where a significant number of Kim's family lives, they refused to consider moving him to one of the multitude of other bases around the world,” Stephen Hanks told about 50 fellow protesters outside Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. “It didn't seem to bother them that his presence in Tucson would inflict additional suffering or risk for Kim as well as us. We are here today to … demand that Lt. Col. Wilkerson and Lt. Gen. Franklin be removed from the Air Force immediately.”

As of Monday, Wilkerson had reported to duty at Davis-Monthan, said Capt. Justin Brockhoff, spokesman for the 12th Air Force, which is headquartered at that base.

That was news to the Hanks family.

“The Air Force said they would tell Kim where he would go, prior to their assigning him, to get her feelings about that,” Hanks said. “They never did. Nobody told us anything.”

Responded Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Lindsey A. Hahn: "Air Force assignments are based on the individual's qualifications as well as the needs of the Air Force. To the best of our knowledge, there was no commitment by the Air Force to notify the accuser of Lt. Col. Wilkerson's next assignment.”

Hahn added that the Air Force personnel officers who opted to station Wilkerson in Tucson would not have known the location of Kim Hanks’ extended family.

When a U.S. service member is convicted of a sexual crime by a military tribunal — as Wilkerson was — that service member must register as a sex offender with public databases in the same way that civilian convicts must notify those systems, including providing a current home address, said Katy Otto, spokeswoman for the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN). That condition falls under the 1994 Wetterling Act.

But because Lt. Gen. Franklin tossed out the conviction, Wilkerson faced no such requirement, said SWAN Policy Director Greg Jacob.

“It's as if Wilkerson was found not guilty by the court,” Jacob said. “Since under the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act a conviction triggers registration, Wilkerson does not have to register as a sex offender."

The conviction’s reversal and Wilkerson’s subsequent transfer to Tucson prompted Thursday’s protest, organized by Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for victims of military sexual assault. Members of that organization have publicly called on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to remove Wilkerson from the Air Force. On Monday, their president, Nancy Parrish, also sent a letter to Hagel requesting that Franklin also be dismissed from service.

Franklin’s decision to reverse the military jury’s ruling, Parrish said in her letter, “clearly conflicts with his responsibility to further good order and discipline within the service ... Lt. General Franklin must be fired.

“What powers could Lt. General Franklin possess that would make him a better judge of the credibility of witnesses than the actual court members, who observed the testimony?” Parrish asked. “He did nothing more than protect a fellow pilot.”