WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan (R., Pa.) has stepped into the furor over sexual assault in the military, co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill that would limit pre-trial hearings that have reportedly led to invasive questioning that, critics say, effectively put accusers on trial.
Meehan’s bill with U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D., Calif.) would limit preliminary hearings known as “Article 32” hearings to establishing probable cause, much like similar proceedings in civilian courts. The proposal comes as concern mounts over the frequently of military sexual assaults, the way they are handled, and the invasive lines of questioning toward accusers reported in some Article 32 hearings.
A release for Meehan’s proposal cited a recent New York Times report that told of a Naval Academy sophomore who accused three Academy athletes of raping her. In the preliminary hearing, the woman was questioned for roughly 30 hours by the defense, and was asked about whether she wore underwear the night of the incident and about her oral sex technique – sparking outrage from critics who said the preliminary hearings have become trials unto themselves, and could provoke a “chilling” effect on crime victims.
“It takes great courage for a victim to come forward and they should never be made to feel they are on trial,” Meehan, a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, said in a news release announcing his plan last week.
Meehan, of Delaware County, added, “hours and hours of invasive public questioning in a pre-trial proceeding is cruel and unnecessary. This bipartisan legislation ends this abuse by instituting federal court practices that have proven effective in pursuing justice and protecting victims.”
The Meehan-Speier bill is a companion to a Senate proposal with five Republican and seven Democratic sponsors. It’s not clear when or if either measure will advance.
Military officials have urged lawmakers to stay out of the military’s process for handling alleged crimes.
"It's a huge mistake to take the commanders out of the system," Army chief of staff Gen. Raymond Odierno told USA Today. "Ninety-five percent of them do the right thing."