Senate passes bill aimed at curbing military sexual assault

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The Senate unanimously passed legislation Monday evening designed to curb sexual assault in the military, including ending the longstanding "good soldier" defense used to raise doubts that a crime has been committed.

The bill, which passed 97-0 in a rare show of bipartisan unanimity, also would allow alleged victims more input in whether their case is tried in military or civilian courts, among other new protections.

The measure was drafted by three female senators -- Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Republicans Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Deb Fischer of Nebraska.

"The Senate's passage of our proposal is a victory for all those working towards the shared goal of ending sexual assault in the military and protecting our service men and women from these heinous crimes," Fischer said.

The senator added that while the bill "achieves significant progress," Congress still must work in an oversight role with the Pentagon and White House to ensure the reforms -- if enacted into law -- are effectively and appropriately implemented.

The measure now goes to the House. Whether the chamber takes up the issue as a stand-alone bill or incorporates it into a larger defense policy measure is uncertain.

The bill modifies the Military Rules of Evidence to prevent defendants from using good military character as a defense unless it's deemed directly relevant to the case.

The measure also calls for military services to set up a confidential process to allow alleged sexual assault victims who have been discharged to challenge the terms or characterization of their expulsion.

And under the legislation, if a prosecutor recommends a case go forward and a commander disagrees, the case would be kicked up for review to the secretary of the service branch. Currently, only cases in which there is disagreement between a commander and his or her legal counsel or judge advocate require the higher-level review.

But the legislation doesn't go as far as a bill written by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would have removed sexual assault prosecutions from the military chain of command. Senators rejected that measure last week, saying it went too far in stripping power from military commanders.

After Monday's vote, Gillibrand posted on Twitter that while she was "proud" to support her colleagues' version, "stronger reforms are still needed."

This story was first published on March 10 at 7:50 p.m.

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