Army sergeant's exoneration strikes nerves in armed forces Many say it will be seen as condoning harassment

March 15, 1998|By BOSTON GLOBE

WASHINGTON -- The American armed forces awakened yesterday to a jarring reality: The sworn testimony of six servicewomen who were strangers to each other but reported strikingly similar sexual abuse by a powerful Army leader failed to convict the alleged assailant.

In a milestone on the turbulent course of gender politics in the military, Sgt. Maj. Gene C. McKinney's exoneration Friday on 18 sex-related charges struck nerves on American bases as men and women braced for the potentially damaging consequences of the acquittals.

Several lawmakers and military analysts expressed concern that many members of the armed forces would interpret the jury's action as sanctioning sexual harassment, particularly of subordinates by their superiors.

Rep. Martin T. Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat on the House National Security Committee, said, "I'm concerned that female soldiers and sailors will not feel they can speak out about being sexually victimized by a superior without putting their careers and lives in jeopardy."

As Meehan and other lawmakers prepared to address the

McKinney case in a House hearing Tuesday, McKinney, 47, the first black to become the Army's top enlisted man, savored nearly total victory yesterday after the jury of Army officers and senior enlisted members convicted him of only one relatively minor charge: obstruction of justice for urging one of his accusers to lie to investigators.

A sentencing hearing will be held tomorrow. The jury apparently deemed McKinney more credible than his accusers, in what amounted largely to a case of "he said, they said" on the sexual misconduct charges. But McKinney, a decorated Vietnam veteran who became a hero to many soldiers in his 29-year career, also was seen as benefiting from military law that allowed the jury to consider his character and military record as the grounds for finding reasonable doubt of his guilt.

Citing that so-called character defense, which cannot form a basis for reasonable doubt in civilian court, Eugene R. Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said Congress should re-examine elements of the military justice system.

Some veterans also expressed concern about the system, asserting that the verdict reflected a military culture that places loyalty and rank above women's concerns.

Sheila E. Widnall, who headed the Pentagon's sexual-harassment task force before she resigned recently as secretary of the Air Force, defended the military courts and the culture.

"I have a lot of confidence in the military justice system," said Widnall, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The military takes these issues very seriously. There is a much more serious process of due diligence. I couldn't imagine the same thing happening in a corporate or other venue."

But Cynthia Enloe, a Clark University professor and author of "The Morning After: Sexual Politics at the End of the Cold War," said: "What a chilling effect this judgment is going to have on every woman in the armed forces who considers taking the huge risk of officially charging any superior with sexual harassment."

To Pentagon leaders, the aggressive prosecution of McKinney was supposed to serve as an example of a tough "zero tolerance" policy on sexual harassment.

Instead, McKinney's accusers, several of whom jeopardized their careers to come forward, were left wondering whether "zero tolerance" better signified the jury's view of their complaints.

"What the verdicts really reflect is a deep ambivalence in the Army toward these kinds of charges and toward the role of women in the Army generally," said Susan Barnes, lawyer for Sgt. Brenda Hoster, who first went public with charges against McKinney.

McKinney faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a dishonorable discharge for the obstruction of justice conviction, although his punishment is expected to be far more lenient. He would have faced as many as 55 1/2 years had he been convicted of the other 18 charges.

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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