Army’s New Special Prosecutors Hit Ground Running with Case Netting 20-Year Sentence for Rape, Assault

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February 22, 2024
Gavel and American flag with scales of justice.

In a first for the Army, a new specialized legal team is prosecuting the service’s most egregious criminal cases, including a soldier based in Okinawa, Japan, who was convicted of the rape and sexual assault of two victims in California and South Korea earlier this month.

Sgt. Antonio Robert Aden, 27, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the rapes and assaults — a complex international legal trial concluding with a stiff sentence. He was also handed a dishonorable discharge and a reduction in rank to private.

The case against Aden was prosecuted by the service’s Special Trial Counsel, newly established in December — a team of independent prosecutors created by Congress tasked with handling assault, sexual assault, kidnapping, domestic violence, stalking, child pornography and harassment criminal cases in the Army. The team is already involved in 600 cases, and the caseload is expected to pile up.

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The landmark move to ensure prosecutors are independent of the chain of command was among the most seismic changes to the military justice system in a generation. That change had faced heavy resistance by Pentagon leaders and some lawmakers on Capitol Hill for decades, but was finally mandated by a law spearheaded by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who retired from Congress last year.

The new law replaces commanders with independent prosecutors in determining whether troops accused of serious offenses should be prosecuted. Advocates had long criticized the old system for allowing commanders who rarely had legal expertise to shield alleged perpetrators in their formation from prosecution.

“We’re trying to achieve justice,” Col. Rob Rodrigues, acting lead special trial counsel, told Military.com in an interview. “And all along the way, keeping victims informed, engaged and [feeling] like they are a respected member of this process, regardless of outcome.”

The Army’s Office of Special Trial Counsel, based out of Fort Belvoir, Virginia, consists of 28 offices across the Army and 160 prosecutors and staff. Some of those prosecutors have a regional jurisdiction to cover small installations.

The size of the special counsel team will likely grow as it is expected to start taking on sexual harassment cases in January 2025, greatly expanding the number of cases it handles.

Meanwhile, the prosecuting team is still in its infancy, and it’ll likely take years to know whether it’s successful.

Rodrigues noted that the total number of cases taken to trial might decrease, given prosecutors will want to move forward with winnable cases, but said he hopes the percentage of overall convictions will rise.

But he said several performance measures will be used to assess the team every year, such as case processing time, conviction rates, and how well informed and treated victims felt through the process.

The Office of Special Trial Counsel hit turbulence just weeks before it was stood up and started taking cases. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth fired Brig. Gen. Warren Wells, who was the previous top prosecutor, over a 2013 email in which he appeared to cast doubt on and downplay sexual assault allegations, according to reporting by CNN.

“Hopefully, a soldier will be able to get a fair trial. You and your teams are now the ONLY line of defense against false allegations and sobriety regret,” Wells wrote in an email to his subordinates, according to the news outlet. “You literally are the personal defenders of those no one will now defend, even when all signs indicate innocence.”

He told CNN his comments were inappropriate. Wells is still on active duty, assigned as the special assistant to Lt. Gen. Stuart Risch, the Army’s judge advocate general. Rodrigues had been serving as Wells’ deputy lead trial counsel. It is unclear when the Senate will confirm a replacement.

There were 7,378 reports of sexual assault against troops across the military in 2022, according to the most recent federal data, a slight uptick of about 100 from the previous year.

However, the Army was the only service where reports weren’t on the rise, seeing a 9% decrease. Defense officials have argued an increase in reporting could be a sign troops trust their chain of command to take assault seriously.

Related: Sex Offenses for 3 Senior Army Officers End with Plea Deals and Reprimands

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