Panetta's Comment at Slain Cops' Memorial Stirs Debate

The former defense secretary issued an unexpected commentary on the problem of sexual assault in the military

During the funeral for two Santa Cruz, Calif., police officers killed in the line of duty, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta did something unexpected: He dove into the killer's background — and gave commentary on the problem of sexual assault in the military.

"We do know that he had a history of sexual violence both in and out of the military, and for whatever reason, people somehow always look the other way," Panetta said Thursday.

Jeremy Goulet, who was killed in a gun battle with police after he fatally shot two Santa Cruz police officers, was accused of raping two military officers in 2006 while in the army. A plea bargain allowed him to walk away with a less than honorable discharge.

"At some point, somebody pays a price," Panetta said.

While the former Pentagon chief never said it outright, many believe Panetta implied that that dismissed case so many years ago may have ultimately led to the death of the two Santa Cruz police officers last Tuesday.

The problem of sexual assault in the military has been well-documented and was an issue Panetta spent much of his time at the Defense Department addressing.

"I thought Secretary Panetta was responding from his heart as a human being in responding to a crisis and a tragedy really in terms of how well we’ve taken care of the problem of sexual assault in the military and how both the victims and the perpetrators of those crimes haven’t been managed appropriately in past years," said Beth Hillman, a professor of law at the University of California – Hastings and the president of the National Institute for Military Justice.

Experts estimate that as many as 19,000 military women and men are sexually assaulted every year, but only 13 percent ever report the attacks.

Many believe that is because the current system for prosecuting the cases gives too much power to commanding officers.

"I think it’s time to take this problem away from our military leaders and put it in the hands of independent prosecutors and investigators who can manage this without worrying about the impact or the reputation of the military," Hillman said.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) agrees. "The commanding officer is the judge and the jury. The commanding officer when you report a rape can decide not to pursue it, not to have it investigated," she said in a statement.

The congresswoman has introduced three bills in hopes of creating an environment that better protects victims and reduces what many call a "good ol’ boys" network that in some cases protects predators.

"Rapes will continue in the military, sexual assaults, sexual harassment unless we take dramatic steps to change it," Speier said.

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