Trial for Former Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention Chief Begins

Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski's trial starts as service members, activists look for policy shift.

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Krusinski was arrested on May 5 for sexual battery.

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The trial for Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski begins Thursday over accusations so fundamentally stunning that at least four news organizations, including this one, independently wrote the exact same headline.

Krusinski faces initial charges of sexual battery in an Arlington County, Va. courthouse. He was arrested in May following accusations that he groped and fought with a woman in a parking lot near the Pentagon, and was subsequently removed from his position as head of the Air Force's sexual prevention and response branch.

The case helped awaken what senior Pentagon officials are calling a crisis regarding sexual assault within the ranks.

[READ: Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention Chief Arrested for Sexual Assault]

Top brass within the department going all the way up to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel have publicized the issue in recent months. Visitors to the Air Force website for sexual prevention and response are now greeted with videos from Hagel, Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey and the top Air Force general and enlisted airman.

Defense leadership supports what critics call an arcane regulation allowing military commanders to overturn guilty verdicts in courts martial. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has introduced legislation that would remove this power.

 

Spokespeople from Hagel's office and from the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force declined to comment on Krusinski's trial.

The position Krusinski previously held – assigned to a mid-level officer – has been replaced by Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward, a two-star who holds the same rank as her colleague who oversees sexual assault prevention department-wide.

"We need our Airmen talking about this issue," she said in a statement on Wednesday.

[POLL: Should Military Sexual Assaults Be Dealt With By Commanders?]

An Arlington judge declined the Pentagon's initial requests to handle Krusinski's case internally. Theo Stamos, the prosecutor for Arlington County, tells U.S. News she and Pentagon officials have been sharing information about the case, but declined to comment further.

Krusinski's lawyer, D.C.-based Barry Coburn, says he too has interacted with Pentagon officials regarding the case but declined to comment any further.  

"We're privileged to represent Lt. Col. Krusinski and we look forward to defending him in the courtroom," he says.

This case occurs at the same time as a military court martial for Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, a former senior officer for the 82nd Airborne Division who faces charges of sodomy, adultery and pornography, as well as sexually assaulting a female subordinate.

Experts say the publicity and outcome of these cases will help shape how future service members view their employer.

"The problem that we're looking at within the military justice system is there's a real lack of faith and confidence within the system," says Greg Jacobs, policy director for the Service Women's Action Network. He says this accounts for the high rates of underreporting for these crimes.

[READ: Military Sexual Assault Investigations Are Inefficient, DoD Says]

"The status quo within the DOD isn't where it needs to be," he says. "Changes really need to happen."

Service members still feel a fear of retaliation, either from their commanders or from their peers, or feel that nothing will come from drawing attention to an attacker.

"Whether these people are held accountable is really key," says Jacobs of the ongoing trials.

Krusinski's trial will be particularly interesting, he adds, as a real-world analysis of a justice system that unlike military justice is impartial and not command-centric.

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