Airmen get inside look at military judicial system

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. – Students attending orientation training through the Offutt Air Force Base First Term Airmen’s Center now actively participate in mock court-martials to raise awareness about sexual assault in the military.

“Members, today (June 19) you’re going to hear about a sexual assault … that was committed against the victim … by the accused, her friend,” the prosecutor said in their opening statement.

Members of the 55th Wing legal office modeled the program after a similar platform used at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, titled ‘Got Consent,’ which promotes sexual assault prevention through education and awareness. The program launched at Offutt in June.

“We took what Spangdahlem (AB’s) legal office started and we took it a step further,” said Capt. Dave Rolek, the 55th Wing assistant staff judge advocate and coordinator for the program. “We made it a realistic courtroom experience for them.”

The court-martials, which take place inside Offutt AFB’s courtroom, simulate an Airman being accused of violating Article 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, a charge for sexual assault crimes. Throughout the trial, Airmen experience firsthand what it’s like to go through a court-martial, to include cross examinations, expert witness testimony and panel (jury) deliberations.

“It was the first time I had ever been in a court-martial,” said Airman 1st Class Mychal Allen, from the 55th Maintenance Squadron who attended the first mock trial June 9. “I learned a lot of things that you wouldn’t know just by sitting in a classroom; actually going through a court-martial, seeing all of the different evidence that’s brought up, and being cross examined. It makes you question a lot of things that you probably wouldn’t have questioned.” 

Rolek said the scenario for the mock trial included the use of alcohol, which is frequently present in sexual assault cases. The degree of impairment is often an area of dispute during a sexual assault trial. 

“An airman goes out drinking, and something happens when they come back home, and they’re not really sure if it was sexual assault or consensual the next day, so we really wanted to put that on display for the young Airmen,” Rolek said.

After hearing all of the testimony, Airmen are given 30 minutes of deliberation to discuss the court-martial before settling on a verdict.

“They really get in to it – going back and forth about what the definitions meant, what evidence they wanted to see, and whether or not it was sexual assault,” Rolek said. “We really feel that it gets through to them.” 

In the end, determining whether the accused is guilty or not guilty can be difficult.

“I did not feel bad about saying not guilty,” said Airman 1st Class Justin Pearson, from the 55th Force Support Squadron. “I like dealing with absolutes … my opinion was altered after they said you cannot incriminate somebody if there’s reasonable doubt.”

So far, the legal office has conducted three mock trials for 71 first-term Airmen. Rolek said their office decided to make some changes to the mock trials after receiving feedback from the first two.

“Students really wanted to see more evidence,” Rolek said. “They wanted expert knowledge on how victims respond, how alcohol specifically affects people, and they wanted friends to verify the victim’s story. They were really thinking critically about it.”

In response, the mock trial was expanded to include testimonies from mental health and alcohol experts, an Office of Special Investigations agent, DNA evidence, and the accused’s testimony by means of a previously written statement.

“We believe that these additions strengthen the experience for FTAC students by providing them with a very realistic exposure to what an actual court-martial can look like,” said 2nd Lt. Ryan Crnkovich, a legal intern who works with Rolek and who helps organize the mock trials.

Rolek hopes Airmen who attend the mock trial will walk away with a better understanding of the military justice system and a more responsible mindset.

“(Sexual activity) is something that should be done sober and for sure with consent, and hopefully we got that message across,” Rolek said.