The Air Force Academy's show trial.

Military analysis.
July 9 2003 2:55 PM

The Air Force Academy's Show Trial

The academy's new mascot should be the scapegoat.

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Rape cases are notoriously tough to prosecute—particularly he said/she said situations—but the academy is determined to prove it's trying, and that may be the real motive for the Meester trial. Air Force Secretary James Roche told reporters at a May 28 academy press conference that he had directed commanders here to pursue Article 32 hearings more aggressively.

Gen. Weida is not discussing his Meester decision, but one factor in the commandant's push for prosecution may be the belief that military discipline sometimes requires a scapegoat. In a military unit, it may sometimes be more important to set an example than worry too much about an individual cadet—especially one who has clearly misbehaved. Two leading military law scholars, Duke law professor Scott Silliman and National Institute of Military Justice President Eugene Fidell, said commanders are not expected to render their decisions entirely on the merits of the case. "It is absolutely appropriate for the commander to look at the impact of the decision on the entire unit," Fidell said. "Particularly with regard to the issue of discipline."

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In other words, it is reasonable to court-martial an innocent man just to send a message to the troops. Fortunately, the officers Weida will appoint as Meester's jury are not under the same stricture as Weida. They are not supposed to consider the unit or the academy's reputation, only the facts of the case. Those facts are ugly, but not grounds for ending a young man's life.

Dave Cullen is the author of Columbine.