Military Panel to Hold Public Meeting on Sexual Assault

The 'role of the commander' comes front-and-center amid a shocking spate of reported sexual assaults.

A US Army carry team walks away during a dignified transfer for U.S. Army SPC. Terry K. Gordon, at Dover Air Force Base, on Dec.19, 2013, in Dover, Delaware.

A panel of nine members has been tasked with studying existing sexual assault issues within the military.

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The general public will have 15 minutes to comment on sexual assaults in the military at an open meeting Thursday arranged by a panel tasked with studying the troubling trend.

The meeting follows shocking revelations of abuse throughout the military's ranks. An Air Force general announced earlier this month he will retire after overturning a conviction of sexual assault against one of his star fighter pilots.

Two midshipmen on the football team at the U.S. Naval Academy remain under investigation for charges of rape. A brigadier general formerly in the 82nd Airborne, accused of forcibly sodomizing a subordinate among other charges of indecency, will face a court-martial in March. And a recent Washington Post report exposes a spate of misconduct from senior officers across the services, the most common incidents of which were related to sexual or personal misbehavior.

[READ: Pentagon Tries to Break Service Academies' 'Continuum of Harm']

The military estimates there were 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact in 2012.

A panel of nine members, four chosen by Congress and five by the Pentagon, has been tasked with studying existing sexual assault issues within the military. It will hold a public meeting on Thursday at the George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C., after a string of subcommittee hearings that have been criticized by some for their secrecy in what the military touts as a transparent process.

A spokeswoman for the panel declined to comment on what it hopes to achieve with Thursday's public meeting.

Some of the experts who have testified for and against proposed changes to the military's sexual assault laws will be allowed on Thursday to repeat the testimony they gave behind closed doors in previous hearings.

One of the most contentious issues before the panel is whether commanders should continue to oversee sexual assault cases among their subordinates. Proponents, including Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, say removing this component of the Uniform Code of Military Justice would undercut commanders' ability to lead.

"We need to hold the leaders accountable who are not using the tools we have given them, such as the UCMJ, to solve this problem," Odierno said in remarks at the National Press Club earlier this month. "Don't take the tool away. What we have to do is hold accountable those who are not using these tools properly."

Opponents say commanders are inherently biased in such cases, and they should be left to legal professionals who can arbitrate each instance fairly. Otherwise, they say, sexual assault victims remain too fearful of retribution to report such crimes.

[ALSO: Military Sexual Assaults Panel Meets Behind Closed Doors]

Those who support this change have rallied behind Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who has introduced legislation that would remove commanders from overseeing sexual assault cases. Her proposed bill would keep all military-related crimes and non-serious crimes within the chain of command.

"If there's been a rape, or a murder, our civil liberties, our review of justice demands that the decision-maker about those decisions should be blind justice," Gillibrand told MSNBC's Patrick Murphy. "What we've heard from too many victims is either their commander may be their assailant, or may well know their assailant, may prefer their assailant, or may value their assailant more."

"They just don't think anything will be done. There is just an inherent bias when for a commander, it may reflect badly that a rape happened under his command," she said.

Murphy, a former congressman and combat veteran, gave testimony at the panel's Jan. 8 closed-door hearing in support of Gillibrand's bill.

More information on Thursday's hearing is available at the Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel website. This is the fourth public meeting of the panel since it first convened in June.

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