Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Transparency in US military justice

The Associated Press has run this story about access to court records in the US military justice system. It is part of a larger AP investigative project on child sex crimes in the armed forces, described here and here. The authors are Richard Lardner and Eileen Sullivan. The opacity of the system is a major theme.

ABC News has posted a lengthy version of the AP account here. Excerpt:
While child sex crimes may not be swept under the rug, the Defense Department does not make it easy for the public to learn about them.
After DeSmit's conviction in January, the Marine Corps summed up the case in two sentences. 
"At a General Court-Martial at Okinawa, Japan, Chief Warrant Officer 4 D. E. DeSmit was convicted by a military judge alone of conspiracy to commit sexual assault and rape of children, aggravated sexual abuse of a child, sexual abuse of a child and possession of child pornography. The military judge sentenced the accused to 144 years of confinement, a reprimand and dismissal," a summary of the court-martial released by the Marine Corps read. 
And that's all the service would have said publicly, had the AP not pressed for more. 
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service initially said releasing its 198-page investigative report on DeSmit would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." The AP appealed the denial, and the Navy judge advocate general's office overruled NCIS, declaring the agency's decision overly broad and instructing it to release all material within the report not exempted from disclosure. NCIS investigations, which include evidence from the crime scene and witness interviews, are not court documents but are used by military leaders to decide what action to take against a service member. 
NCIS blacked out all the names in the report, including DeSmit's. The AP identified him by the dates and events left in the document. 
The effect of the policy is an enhanced degree of privacy for convicted service members not available to civilian defendants. Most records from criminal cases in state and federal courts are public, although the privacy of the victims of violent crime is protected.

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