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Army Assault Prosecutors Regroup


A couple of weeks ago, a group of lawyers gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia for some extra legal training. Not unusual, you might say, but this wasn't your every day legal training. These are Army lawyers getting training on what they can do to help the Pentagon fight sexual assault in the military.

NPR's Larry Abramson was in the room for some of that training, and he's here with us now in the studio. Hi, Larry.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Hi there, Rachel.

MARTIN: So describe this training for us. What are these lawyers learning?

: Well, first of all Rachel, you've heard the numbers, right? There are thousands of sexual assaults in the military every year and very few, a small fraction of these victims actually come forward and file charges. So this training session is supposed to create a cadre of lawyers that'll do two things: prosecute these cases and, at the same time, protect the rights of victims so they'll feel comfortable coming forward.

MARTIN: OK. So, is that because a lot of victims in rape trials in particular, feel like they get put through the wringer by the prosecutor?

: Absolutely. Huge problem for the military, victims don't want to go through that experience. So, here's the boss of this group. His name is Colonel Jay Morris. He's a really tall guy with a big, booming voice, as you'll hear. And he kept pounding home the point that these officers are not just out to get a conviction.

COLONEL JAY MORSE: Part of your job is to also ensure that she understands that you're going to do your best to protect her. As long as you let her understand, make sure she understands what the process is, then she's going to cooperate.

: So, the idea is that you can be friendly to the victim but also get a conviction.

MARTIN: So, let's place this in a broader context. The military, as you said, is under huge pressure to show that they're not going easy on assault, that the military justice system is capable of dealing with this problem, right?

: Right. And the military is desperately trying to figure out what else they can do to convince victims to come forward. The Army tries more assault cases than any other service, as the biggest service. So, they brought in outsiders. Civilian prosecutors have a lot of experience with sexual assault, people like Sandy Tullius, who spent many years as a civilian prosecutor. And she warned these Army lawyers about something that victims fear a great deal.

SANDY TULLIUS: What does the defense always want from you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The victims' records.

TULLIUS: Get those victims' mental health records.

: So, a victim's mental health records, of course, are desirable for the defense because maybe the victim had problems or maybe she talked about the attack to her therapist. And victims don't want their mental health records coming out. It's embarrassing, it's personal stuff. So, Tullius drove home the point you got to fight back. Get the judge to limit access to those records.

TULLIUS: The procedure goes through the judge. It is another layer of protection for our victims. Their lives are not just open books just because the defense or CID thinks they are.

: CID is the Army investigative division that gathers evidence for a case.

MARTIN: OK. So, even if a victim is comfortable coming forward, aren't assault cases tough to prosecute anyway?

: They are, especially if there's no physical evidence. It can just be sort of a he-said-she-said problem. But here's an example where Colonel Jay Morse urged these lawyers be more aggressive. For example, a lot of perpetrators are serial attackers; they've done this before. And it can be difficult to introduce evidence about previous attacks if they haven't been proven in court. But Jay Morse told the attorneys: get aggressive, get information that might prove that somebody has done this before.

MORSE: And have him talk to past supervisors, have him find out who was in his platoon, have him essentially do canvass interviews. They'll go out and I guarantee you that more often than not, this is not the first time that this guy has done what you are charging him with.

MARTIN: OK. So, clearly they're trying to address this problem. But based on the conversations you had with these lawyers, Larry, why are there still so many assaults? Why is it still such a problem?

: They don't know. But, you know, they question whether things are getting worse not, because the number don't tell the entire story. If more victims are coming forward, as they are, and they're filing more charges, that could be an indication that these Army prosecutors are doing their job and are making sure that people feel comfortable coming forward. Here's Captain Faith Coutier. She's prosecuting assault cases.

CAPTAIN FAITH COUTIER: I think the measure of our success is not necessarily going to be the numbers. It's going to be the opinion of the victims once it's over. So, if we have satisfied victims, regardless of the conviction rate, to me that's a success, as opposed to, yeah, I put him in jail but this person is still really angry with how I handled it.

: Now, of course, that sounds good but members of Congress are going to want to know are you doing something positive to address this problem? You have to have numbers to show that they're having some sort of effect. So, the argument about the numbers is going to continue. And we will see more debate over whether or not people coming forward is a sign that the system is doing its job or that there's a huge problem with assault in the military.

MARTIN: NPR's Larry Abramson. Thanks so much, Larry.

: OK. Thank you.


MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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