Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the changes will ensure the "military justice system will do justice in every case."

Story highlights

Defense secretary wants to curb commanders' judicial power

Initiative arises from pilot's overturned sexual assault conviction

Air Force commander threw out verdict, restored defendant

CNN  — 

In response to an Air Force colonel’s overturned sexual assault conviction, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is asking Congress to limit military commanders’ authority to toss out court-martial verdicts.

“These changes would increase the confidence of service members and the public that the military justice system will do justice in every case,” Hagel said in a statement Monday announcing the initiative.

Hagel also wants to require commanders who change court-martial sentences to explain their decisions in writing.

The effort comes in response to the case of Air Force Col. James Wilkerson. The F-16 pilot was freed last year from a Navy brig four months after a court-martial convicted him of sexually assaulting a woman at his home outside Aviano Air Base in Italy.

Acting under the military justice system’s Article 60, the Air Force’s top commanding officer in Europe, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, exercised his power as “convening authority” of the court-martial to overturn the conviction.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was among those expressing outrage over the decision.

“As we are trying to send a signal to women … I question now whether that unit that that man returns to, whether there’s any chance a woman who is sexually assaulted in that unit would ever say a word,” McCaskill said during a hearing in March.

Lisa Windsor, a former Army Judge Advocate General officer, said any base commander has authority to do what Franklin did, but “I’ve actually never seen that happen before, that a convening authority would completely overturn the case.”

Hagel ordered a review of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and Monday’s announcement is the result. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretaries of the various services support the changes, he said.

“Despite the attention and efforts of senior leaders throughout the Department of Defense, it is clear the department still has much more work to do to fully address the problem of sexual assault in the ranks,” Hagel said. “This crime is damaging this institution. There are thousands of victims in the department, male and female, whose lives and careers have been upended, and that is unacceptable.”

About 19,000 men and women suffer sexual assault each year in the military, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last year in announcing a Pentagon effort to stop the crime. Panetta noted that only about 3,200 of those assaults were reported. About 10,700 cases – 56% – involved male victims in 2010, based on anonymous reporting collected by the military.

CNN’s Brian Todd, Josh Levs and Ashley Fantz contributed to this report.