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MG Cooley's case could mark a change in how the Air Force handles sexual misconduct

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now to Ohio and what could be a historic military trial. Opening arguments began today in the case of Major General William Cooley. The two-star general is charged with abusive sexual contact. And the trial comes as the military faces increased scrutiny over how it handles sexual misconduct. From member station WYSO, Leila Goldstein reports. And this story contains descriptions of sexual assault.

LEILA GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: This morning in a small courtroom at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton, prosecutors, military defense counsel and the accused gathered. All were in uniform. Major General Cooley is accused of kissing and inappropriately touching the victim without her consent. He pleaded not guilty. On the stand today the alleged victim, a civilian, said she was terrified when Cooley pinned her in the car. But no matter the outcome of the case, the trial itself is remarkable.

An Air Force general has never made it this far in court martial proceedings. It's a reflection of the phrase different spanks for different ranks, a sense that higher-up officials are held to a different standard than the enlisted. Rachel VanLandingham Ham is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who teaches at Southwestern Law School. She argues that structural issues undermine the integrity of the military justice system. For instance, it's commanders, not prosecutors, who decide who will be charged.

RACHEL VANLANDINGHAM: Military commanders are not going to charge other commanders with anything. They take care of each other. And so there's really - the system is biased at its core. I think it's still very much an older white male club.

GOLDSTEIN: She also points to the dearth of women and people of color in leadership, and says that contributes to a culture where senior leaders are not held accountable, particularly when it comes to sexual misconduct. Retired Air Force Colonel Don Christiansen heads the nonprofit group Protect Our Defenders.

DON CHRISTENSEN: It's like having your friend decide whether or not you're prosecuted. And, you know, no shock - your friend decides not to prosecute you.

GOLDSTEIN: He says the military culture can have an effect on all these officers involved in the trial.

CHRISTENSEN: Brought up in the military where generals are gods, and now you have a god on trial, there's going to be an inclination, I think, to give this general more deference than you would give an airman basic.

GOLDSTEIN: Rachel VanLandingham says Congress has been pushing for reforms. Legislation in the National Defense Authorization Act changes who gets to decide whether someone is prosecuted for crimes related to sexual misconduct.

VANLANDINGHAM: So for the first time, Congress has rested, has plucked away prosecutorial discretion for 11 discrete offenses from these commanders and given them - given these offenses to independent - supposedly military lawyers that are independent from the chain of command.

GOLDSTEIN: Defense attorney Daniel Conway says that congressional pressure for reform has an impact on this case. He says it's part of why the defense decided not to go with a jury trial, where jurors would have to be senior members of the military.

DANIEL CONWAY: It's difficult to pick a jury from a pool of officers whose career progression depends on the approval of a senate that expends significant energy excoriating them about sexual assaults on an annual basis.

GOLDSTEIN: Joshua Kastenberg is a retired Air Force judge advocate and teaches at the University of New Mexico School of Law. He says this case will be closely watched by the younger generation of military officers.

JOSHUA KASTENBERG: I don't think the change will be overnight - it never is - but it's a step in the right direction.

GOLDSTEIN: If convicted, Cooley could face dismissal from the military and considerable prison time. For NPR News, I'm Leila Goldstein in Dayton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Goldstein