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Prosecutors are getting a rare second chance to make the case against an airman accused of rape after the Air Force overrode a three-star general who initially dismissed the charges.
The new Article 32 hearing, which is similar to a grand jury proceeding, began Tuesday at Joint Base Andrews, Md., against Airman 1st Class Brandon Wright, who is accused of raping a co-worker in July 2012 at an apartment near Aviano Air Base, Italy.
The Air Force ordered a re-investigation into the case after the alleged victim’s specially appointed attorney complained her client was subjected to an inappropriate line of questioning and a biased investigating officer.
The service in September transferred jurisdiction of the case from Third Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin to Air Force District Washington commander Maj. Gen. Sharon Dunbar, who will now serve as the general court-martial convening authority over the case.
Wright’s defense objected to Tuesday’s hearing.
Franklin first came under fire a year ago after dismissing the court-martial conviction of an Aviano lieutenant colonel accused of sexually assaulting a house guest. He faced a second round of scrutiny from lawmakers and victim advocacy groups after his decision to dismiss charges against Wright became public.
The investigating officer who presided over Wright’s first Article 32 hearing found insufficient evidence to send the case to court-martial and recommended dismissal of the charges. That was in contrast to special court-martial convening authority Brig. Gen. Jon Norman, who recommended Wright go to trial. The final decision rested with Franklin, who sided with the investigating officer.
The accuser’s lawyer, Capt. Maribel Jarzabek, said Tuesday her client was badgered about how long the sexual assault lasted by a biased investigating officer during the first Article 32. The alleged victim said she couldn’t remember but that it felt like “forever.”
“All she can ask for is a fair hearing, and that’s what we’re getting right now,” Jarzabek said. “The process is working. Her voice was heard.”
Air Force Times does not usually identify victims and alleged victims of sexual assault.
The hearing began Tuesday with questions directed at the new investigating officer Lt. Col. Shaun Speranza by Wright’s defense counsel, who wanted to know how familiar he was with the case.
“No one has discussed this case with me or what the outcome should be,” Speranza said. “I can assure you there has been no attempt whatsoever to influence my impartiality.”
Air Force prosecutors called seven witnesses Tuesday, including the accuser, who testified she and Wright and another co-worker had spent the evening leading up to the alleged rape watching movies and drinking alcohol at her apartment near Aviano. When the second co-worker left the living room after the second movie ended, she said, Wright forced himself on her.
She said she repeatedly told him to stop and tried to get away. In the end, she testified, she “froze,” unable to cry out for help.
A defense attorney for Wright, Capt. Brett Robinson, suggested the female staff sergeant had a motive to lie about the events of the night because she was drinking alcohol with subordinate airmen, for which she has never been punished.
Robinson also pointed out that she received an expedited transfer back to the United States, where her fiance and daughter were living at the time.
The hearing is scheduled to continue Wednesday. Wright does not plan to testify.
As in the first Article 32, the investigating officer will recommend whether he believes there is enough evidence to send the case to court-martial. The new special court-martial convening authority, Col. William Knight, will then make his recommendation.