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Cooley's case could mark a change in how the Air Force handles sexual misconduct

william_cooley.jpg
Wesley Farnsworth
/
U.S. Air Force

This week in a small courtroom at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, prosecutors, military defense counsel and the accused gathered. All were in uniform.

Major General William T. Cooley is accused of kissing and inappropriately touching the victim, a civilian, without their consent. He pleaded not guilty.

On the stand, the alleged victim said they were terrified when Cooley pinned them in the car.

But no matter the outcome of the case, military justice system experts say the trial itself is remarkable.

"They take care of each other. And so there's really - the system is biased at its core. I think it's still very much an older white male club."
Rachel VanLandingham, Retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel

An Air Force general has never made it this far in court martial proceedings. Experts said it's a reflection of the phrase "different spanks for different ranks," a sense that higher-up military officials are held to a different standard than the enlisted.

Rachel VanLandingham is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who teaches at Southwestern Law School. She argued that structural issues undermine the integrity of the military justice system. For instance, it's commanders, not prosecutors, who decide who will be charged.

"Military commanders are not going to charge other commanders with anything," VanLandingham said. "They take care of each other. The system is biased at its core. I think it's still very much an older white male club."

She also pointed to the dearth of women and people of color in leadership, and said that contributes to a culture where senior leaders are not held accountable, particularly when it comes to sexual misconduct.

Retired Air Force Colonel Don Christensen heads the nonprofit group Protect Our Defenders.

"It's like having your friend decide whether or not you're prosecuted," Christensen said. "And, you know, no shock —your friend decides not to prosecute you."

He said the military culture can have an effect on all the officers involved in the trial.

"[When you're] brought up in the military where generals are gods, and now you have a god on trial, there's going to be an inclination, I think, to give this general more deference than you would give an airman basic," Christensen said.

VanLandingham said Congress has been pushing for reforms. Legislation in the National Defense Authorization Act changes who gets to decide whether someone is prosecuted for crimes related to sexual misconduct.

"So for the first time, Congress has plucked away prosecutorial discretion for 11 discrete offenses from these commanders and given these offenses to independent, supposedly, military lawyers that are independent from the chain of command," VanLandingham said.

Cooley's defense attorney Daniel Conway said congressional pressure for reform has an impact on this case. He said it's part of why the defense decided not to go with a jury trial, where jurors would have to be senior members of the military.

"It's difficult to pick a jury from a pool of officers whose career progression depends on the approval of a senate that expends significant energy excoriating them about sexual assaults on an annual basis," Conway said.

Joshua Kastenberg is a retired Air Force judge advocate and teaches at the University of New Mexico School of Law. He said this case will be closely watched by the younger generation of military officers.

Kastenberg said, "I don't think the change will be overnight—it never is—but it's a step in the right direction."

If convicted, Cooley could face dismissal from the military and considerable prison time.
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