July 25, 2013 Updated: July 25, 2013 at 6:30 pm
Two national experts in military law warn that a recent move by Fort Carson to cover rape cases with a cloak of secrecy raises red flags.
In recent weeks, Fort Carson has refused to release documents charging soldiers with rape and sexual assault, most recently in the case of Spc. Alexander Aguilar. The change came without explanation and reverses more than a decade of routine release of similar documents. Charge sheets are the formal document that accuses a soldier of a crime and specifies what they allegedly did in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Hiding those charge sheets from public view damages the reputation of the military's court system, said Eugene Fidell, the president emeritus of the National Institute of Military Justice who now teaches military law at Yale University.
"The normal reaction by modern American observers is that somebody is trying to hide something," Fidell said. "Why would you do that?"
Fidell contends that as court documents, the charge sheets must legally be released.
An Army spokesman at the Pentagon, Lt. Col. Justin Platt, said the Army has no standard on the release of charge sheets in courts-martial.
"That's always been up to the commander," he said.
Fort Carson, asked about its reasons for secrecy, didn't respond Thursday.
Many commanders lean toward secrecy, even while that secrecy harms the defendant's right to a public trial and the public's right to observe courts, said Victor Hansen, associate dean of the New England School of Law in Boston and a former Army lawyer.
"It's baffling to me why the military continues to act like these things are secretive and are not subject to public scrutiny," Hansen said.
The military has faced Congressional scrutiny and public scandal over a rise in sexual assaults in the ranks. A Pentagon report estimated that as many as 26,000 troops were sexually assaulted in 2012.
The increase in sexual assaults and concerns over how the military has handled sexual assault cases has driven a push to take authority away from commanders who oversee the military's justice system.
In June, a House committee approved proposed changes to military law, which would increase penalties for rape and take away a commander's authority to dismiss court-martial verdicts in sexual assault cases.
Last week, Fort Carson Spc. Blake Hart was sentenced to 16 months behind bars and a bad conduct discharge for "indecent liberties with a child." The post hasn't released the charge sheet in that case, despite repeated requests.
Aguilar is accused of violating the military's sexual assault laws and is awaiting trial. The military won't release details on the case.
Now a new wave of sex crime investigations are underway at Fort Carson.
Post officials on Wednesday confirmed that "several" soldiers were under investigation for sexual misconduct with girls. The post declined to release details on when, where or how the incidents took place. The Army also wouldn't say how many soldiers or underage females were involved in the case.
The Colorado Springs Police Department confirmed it is investigating a case involving a soldier accused of sexually assaulting a teenage girl.
The Army's Criminal Investigation Command confirmed it's involved in the investigation but also refused to release details.
Fidell said he's concerned about how the Fort Carson is maintaining secrecy long after investigations are complete and cases are headed to trial. He contends that courts-martial should be held to the same standards of openness as other federal courts, which routinely release documents in cases.
"I think it's a self-inflicted wound on the part of the military," he said.
Hansen said that the military justice system is generally fair and effective. But secrecy, especially in sexual assault cases, creates the impression that the military justice system has something to hide, he said.
"The default position the military takes of circling the wagons and not disclosing anything doesn't make sense," Hansen said.