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by: TRIBUNE PHOTO BY JAIME VALDEZ - Meg Garvin, executive director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute, here training Lewis & Clark law students, has taken her advocacy of victims rights the from criminal courts to military courts. In August, Portland Lewis & Clark Law School professor Meg Garvin took a call from the U.S. Marines training base on Parris Island, S.C. The Marines’ Judge Advocate General (JAG) was prosecuting a case against a male Marine who allegedly had raped a female Marine. The military defense attorney wanted to bring up at the court-martial the victim’s sexual and addiction history.

In a civilian sexual-assault case, Garvin knew, the victim’s rights, at a minimum, would be protected by rape shield laws, which keep a victim’s sexual history out of the courtroom. But military courts operate by a different set of rules, rules that historically do little to help sexual assault victims, Garvin says.

The military prosecutor had called Garvin for help in finding an attorney to represent the victim. Garvin, executive director of the Portland-based National Crime Victim Law Institute, immediately attempted, unsuccessfully, to find a civilian attorney near Parris Island who would work pro bono for the victim. She did so knowing that the call from the military prosecutor represented major progress. And she also knew that soon, such a call might not be necessary.

Ever since women began joining the armed forces in large numbers, stories of female assault victims being treated poorly by the military justice system have been almost as common as the abuse cases themselves. It was only a matter of time before the National Crime Victim Law Institute became involved in military victims’ rights, and last year Garvin found her opportunity.

Starting in 2000, Garvin’s institute had been providing crime victims with lawyers specially trained to protect their rights. In 2012, Lt. Gen. Richard C. Harding, the Judge Advocate General of the Air Force, decided to make the Air Force the first military branch to tackle the problem of victims’ rights head on. In December 2012, after Harding and Air Force attorneys consulted with Garvin, institute attorneys began training 60 Air Force attorneys to be victims’ rights attorneys. In January 2013 the Air Force launched its Special Victims’ Counsel Program, modeled after the work Garvin’s institute has done representing civilian victims.

But for Garvin, the big news came in August, when the Department of Defense announced that each branch of the military will implement a Special Victims’ Counsel program. Which has sent Garvin and her attorneys traveling to military bases around the country, training and aiding lawyers who hope to make military courts a bit more like civilian courts when it comes to helping victims. This month, she trained Army lawyers in Alabama to serve as victims’ rights attorneys. Next, she’s heading to Texas to train Navy and Coast Guard attorneys.

But her task isn’t an easy one.

“We have been trying to tilt at the military for years,” Garvin says.

Garvin says in 2012 there were 26,000 reported sexual assaults in the military, but protecting the rights and emotional health of the victims of such assaults has never been a military priority. The court-martial process, she says, involves a prosecutor focused on obtaining a conviction and a defense attorney for the alleged perpetrator, but nobody looking out for the victim. Military prosecutors frequently use tactics that make life harder for the victim, according to Garvin.

“Their job is to do what’s in the government’s best interest, but that’s not always what is in the victim’s best interest,” Garvin says. “What we have learned is (victims) don’t have as many rights, that privilege doesn’t mean the same thing in the military.”

For instance, Garvin says, military prosecutors can access a victim’s medical records, which can include records kept by a mental health therapist the victim might have seen, more easily than a civilian prosecutor might. And the prosecutor can introduce those records in court. Showing a victim has been traumatized by a military rape might help the prosecutor get a conviction, but it doesn’t necessarily help the victim, Garvin says

“Privacy is really at the core of healing,” she says.

The job of the new military Special Victims’ Counsels is not to help prosecutors, but to protect victms’ rights and look out for victims’ welfare.

In doing so, the counsels are forcing the military to confront a host of issues, according to Garvin. Among them is how much of the federal Crime Victims Act, passed in 2004, applies to military cases. The act provides civilian victims a host of rights, including protection from their accusers and restitution.

As an example, Garvin poses a hypothetical question that

has yet to be decided. What

happens, she asks, if a military rape victim who feels betrayed by the military decides to see a therapist outside the military Veterans Administration? Should her Veterans Administration benefits still cover the therapy? And then what happens if that private practice therapist is asked by a military court to turn over the victim’s medical records because members of the military don’t enjoy the same confidentiality protections that civilians do? Garvin says she’s been told that military attorneys have been able to get those records and use them in court.

“That’s an example of how complicated the idea of privacy and confidentiality is with the military,” Garvin says.

It also is an example, she adds, of why military assault victims especially need their own attorneys protecting their rights. “Having lawyers is empowering for them in their healing,” she says.

That lack of empowerment is one of the reasons only about one in four military women who are assaulted see their offenders in court, says former Marine Greg Jacob, policy director for the Service Women’s Action Network, which advocates for military victims. Most women in the military aren’t willing or able to go through a prosecution process that is made doubly traumatic by the military justice system, Jacob says.

“These victims are essentially put on the stand and berated and harassed in ways that really force them to question whether to move forward,” Jacob says.

The system isn’t changing overnight. This spring, court martials have been handed down in a sexual assault scandal uncovered over the past five years at the Lackland Air Force Base outside San Antonio, Texas. More than 60 Air Force trainees have been identified as victims of assault or other crimes, with more than 30 training instructors allegedly the offenders.

According to Jacob, one victim was required to sit through a nearly three-hour private interview by defense attorneys — with no lawyer by her side. She told the attorneys only that she and her commanding officer had had sex, but did not mention the rape that later was established.

“She really didn’t understand what she had done,” Jacob says. “She was like, ‘What happened? Why can’t you prosecute that guy?’ Nobody knows what happened in that room.”

If a trained victim’s attorney had been with Victim Number 7, as she is identified in court documents, the woman would at the very least have known what she was being asked to sign, and probably wouldn’t have signed anything, Jacob says.

Jacob says that 40 Air Force cases so far have gone to trial with victims’ rights attorneys as part of the process, and the attorneys are beginning to transform the way sexual assault cases in the military are handled.

“When people say, how do we change the military around sexual violence cases ... this is one of those programs that answers those questions,” Jacob says.

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