It happened almost four years ago, but the pain for Adrian Perry was still brutal last week as she spoke through tears on the phone about how her young daughters had been sexually abused.
It is a personal story that dramatizes a policy debate.
The abuse had happened in the summer of 2016, at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, when her twin girls had just turned 6 and an older daughter was 10.
Her husband’s former boss, Marine Corps Col. Daniel Wilson, had abused the twins, with one of the girls victimized on multiple occasions, Perry said.
It had happened during several of the periodic visits Perry and her girls paid to the home of Wilson and his wife. Perry found out about it later, she said, from her kids.
Wilson, it turned out, had digitally penetrated one of the twins and had licked and spanked both of them while Perry was in another room. He had offered alcohol, which he called his “apple juice,” to all three children, she said.
“Finding out our daughter’s innocence was stolen from her at 6 years old was one of those things that knocks you off your feet,” she said. “It knocks the wind out of you.”
Making the case more perverse, she said, was that Wilson had been something of a mentor to her husband.
“How do you ever trust after that?” she asked.
Wilson was charged with raping a child, abusing a child and other allegations, including that he sexually assaulted a woman in an unrelated incident.
He was convicted in 2017 of the child sexual abuse charge, conduct unbecoming an officer and being absent without leave.
However, last July, after Wilson had served roughly two years of a five-year prison term, a three-judge panel of the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the child abuse conviction. The appellate judges cited “inconsistencies” they said they found reading a transcript of one of the twin girls’ testimony.
“It was like we had been sent backwards in our healing,” recalled Perry, who is now an advocate for abuse victims.
Attempts to reach Wilson’s attorney were not immediately successful.
Wilson’s case has gotten considerable attention, especially in the military press. But it is particularly relevant now to a congressional debate that will heat up in a few weeks, when the Armed Services committees write their fiscal 2021 defense authorization bill, the NDAA.
The appellate panel in the Perry family’s case had no choice, under military rules, but to essentially hold a second trial and re-litigate the evidence.
This requirement applies to the criminal appeals courts of the Army, Air Force, Navy-Marine Corps and Coast Guard. They must review not just the legalities of their cases — whether evidence was admitted properly and the like — but also the “factual sufficiency” of lower court decisions.
Civilian appellate courts are typically looking out for egregious factual errors or lack of evidence when they review lower court rulings, legal experts say. They are not asking anew, as military appellate courts are, whether the person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, with only slight deference to the lower court’s work.
This approach is virtually unique to the military appellate system, experts said.
“The military system is remarkably different, but not in a way that advances the cause of justice,” said Mary Rose Hughes, an attorney in private practice who represents military sexual assault victims on a pro bono basis.