When President Barack Obama harshly criticized members of the military who commit sexual assault, saying that they should be “”prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged,” he inadvertently created “unlawful command influence” throughout the armed forces that will be “certain to complicate almost all prosecutions for sexual assault,” Jennifer Steinhauer of the New York Times reports.
“Unlawful command influence” refers to actions of commanders that could be interpreted by jurors as an attempt to influence a court-martial, in effect ordering a specific outcome. Mr. Obama, as commander in chief of the armed forces, is considered the most powerful person to wield such influence.
The president’s remarks might have seemed innocuous to civilians, but military law experts say defense lawyers will seize on the president’s call for an automatic dishonorable discharge, the most severe discharge available in a court-martial, arguing that his words will affect their cases.
A dishonorable discharge may sound harsh–but it is far less harsh than conviction by a military court and sentencing to a term in military prison. The president’s remarks have already affected several trials, allowing defense lawyers to move for dismissal, arguing that the president’s remarks tainted their cases.
It would not be the first time that President Obama, attempting to speak up for the victims of specific crimes, had thwarted or affected the course of justice. In 2009, he said that Cambridge, Mssachusetts police had “acted stupidly” in arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. In 2012, he weighed in on the case of Trayvon Martin, adding to pressure on state and local authorities to prosecute George Zimmerman, who was acquitted Saturday. Police had initially declined to charge him due to a strong self-defense claim.