In 2013, President Obama nominated General Susan Helms to serve as vice commander of the Air Force Space Command. An Air Force Academy graduate, Helms became an astronaut in 1990 and was a crewman on four Space Shuttle missions. In 2001, she conducted history’s longest spacewalk of 8 hours, 56 minutes to work on a docking device.
Despite the impressive résumé, she still may not get the job. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who sits on the Armed Services Committee, placed what may be a permanent hold on Helms’ nomination because of a clemency that Helms granted an officer under her command in February 2012.
The clemency concerns a 2009 case where Captain Matthew Herrera was accused of sexually assaulting a female second lieutenant on a night out. This became a he-said-she-said trial in which evidence and third-party testimonies were found to be in favor of Herrera’s, rather than his accuser’s testimonies. For instance, the designated driver of the vehicle in which the alleged sexual assault took place said she saw no signs of unwillingness from the accuser. Herrera and the accuser also exchanged text messages after the fact, and the accuser had to retract her claims that they had only done so a “couple times” when text logs indicated that there were in fact 116 messages, 51 of which were sent by her. (More details found here.)
It was based on this evidence that Helms decided to grant Herrera clemency (albeit against her advocate’s advice) but accepted that Herrera would not be let off unscathed. Herrera was convicted of an “indecent act,” but was spared the disgrace of being put on a sex-offenders list.
In a statement in the Congressional Record on Thursday, McCaskill said that even after having met with Helms and Air Force officials, she “continue[s] to have deep concerns with... Helms’ decision... to overturn the jury verdict of a military court-martial in which the jury found an Air Force officer guilty of sexual assault.” Earlier this month, McCaskill also said the clemency decision “sent a damaging message to survivors of sexual assault who are seeking justice in the military justice system.”
On Monday, Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto accused McCaskill of being part of an effort to “criminalize male sexuality” and declare “war on men,” but these words may be too strong for the case at hand. McCaskill should be applauded for her efforts to protect sexual assault victims, but she has launched them at the wrong people. Helms granted this clemency for just reasons. She noted in her memo that “Capt. Herrera’s conviction should not rest on [the accuser’s] view of her victimization, but on the law and convincing evidence, consistent with the standards afforded any American who finds him/herself on trial for a crime of this severity.”
Sexual assault — be it in the armed forces or anywhere else in the world — must be prevented at all costs. However, in this case, General Helms upheld the rule of law and based her decision on sound evidence, rather than the accuser’s testimonies, many of which were false or exaggerated. This quality, I believe, should have boosted, rather than jeopardized, her move up the ranks.