Colonel Andrew Williams, USAF, who wrote an incredible article on the importance of the commander’s ability to overturn court-martial findings, and who was (and still is?) the Staff Judge Advocate to Lieutenant General Susan Helms, USAF, gets some attention from James Taranto’s Best of the Web column in the Wall Street Journal.
We’ve been following the developing story (see here, here, and here) of Lt Gen Helms, who counts among her many accomplishments numerous trips to outer space, history’s longest spacewalk, and a nomination to serve as vice commander of the Air Force Space Command that was placed on “permanent hold” by Senator Claire McCaskill because Lt Gen Helms granted clemency in the sexual assault court-martial of Capt Herrera (reducing his conviction of aggravated sexual assault to a conviction of indecent acts).
Meet Col. Andrew Williams, a judge advocate at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base. He was the legal adviser in question, and he would like to set the record straight. He asks that we include the disclaimer “that I am speaking in my personal capacity–not on behalf of the Air Force.” Here is his side of the story:
And a piece of Col Williams’ story:
True, neither of us was present at trial. The dynamics of the courtroom, including the witnesses’ demeanors, could not be captured in the record of trial. But the nonverbals should not be given too much weight when they are not observed by a proper jury. It is here that the potential for error is at its greatest. Properly constituted juries can be trusted to make value judgments about witnesses; the same cannot always be said of court-martial panels, which is why Congress provided the safeguards it now threatens to take away. Gen. Helms exercised her independent, professional judgment in reviewing Capt. Herrera’s case. Her integrity–and the law–required she make the right decision as she saw it.
Perhaps some people do not know that the court-martial is a tool of the commander and not a regular court of law, or that the court-martial panel that convicted Capt. Herrera was not a jury. There are also other critical differences between military tribunals and civilian courts. All of these differences may explain why some have not understood General Helms’s actions. But members of Congress familiar with the case should know better.