Military courts are stacked to convict--but not the brass. The Pentagon insists everything's just fine
"The purpose of military law is to promote justice, to assist in maintaining good order and discipline in the armed forces, to promote efficiency and effectiveness in the military establishment, and thereby to strengthen the national security of the United States."
--The preamble to the U.S. Manual for Courts-Martial
`Be all you can be," the Army recruiters liked to say, and they found a true believer in a young man named Duane Adens. Just 19, Adens enlisted in February 1985. Over the next decade, he became a top personnel sergeant at the Pentagon and was on track to make sergeant major. Life was good. But all that changed in late 1996 when the Army, his beloved Army, began investigating him for cocaine use. The chief witness against him was an admitted crack- head and felon. At 9:27 p.m. on July 28, 1998, a five-member Army jury panel convicted him and gave him a bad-conduct discharge. Adens, his wife, and their four children were later evicted from the family's apartment at Fort Belvoir, Va., outside Washington, D.C. The conviction made it tough holding down a civilian job, but Adens managed to find steady work. Last January, his luck finally turned. An Army appeals court, finding that the prosecutor had "materially prejudiced" Adens's right to a fair trial, tossed out his conviction.
A happy ending? Hardly. Adens, now 36, cannot get his old Pentagon job back, he hasn't received most of his back pay, and he has fallen hopelessly behind his peers in the race for promotion. Then, of course, there was the taint of the criminal conviction. "If there was a way to get my good name back, that would be great," Adens says, "but there are people in the Army who still think I am guilty."
Two-faced. Adens, understandably, has no use for the military justice system, and he is far from alone. Consider the case of the Navy petty officer who spent nearly 500 days in a brig as a suspected Russian spy. He was finally freed--but only after a hearing officer concluded that the Navy didn't have much of a case. The Navy says it handled the case properly. In the military, a lawyer can prosecute you, then turn right around and defend you in the same case. That's what happened to a highly regarded Air Force major who was court-martialed and sentenced to eight months in a military prison on a drug conviction, based solely on a urinalysis. Then there's the case of a staff sergeant accused of sexual misconduct, despite the fact that the Army had information that she had been assaulted.
Such cases, sadly, are not unusual in the military. As President Bush continues prosecuting the war against terrorism and prepares for the likelihood of another conflict with Iraq, Pentagon brass say the morale of their troops and the can-do spirit that has been the hallmark of America's fighting forces through nearly every war are higher than ever. There is abundant evidence to support such claims. But to some--legal experts, defense lawyers, and military personnel who have run afoul of the Pentagon's arcane criminal justice system--there is another story. It is a story of unequal justice.