Monday, September 17, 2007

Justice is Served, Sort of

Remember that U.S. Air Force air(wo)man?

By ESTES THOMPSON, Associated Press Writer
Fri Sep 14, 6:06 PM ET

RALEIGH, N.C. - Charged with committing indecent acts after refusing to testify against a man she had accused of rape, only to see those charges later dropped, a female airman said Friday that she is no longer sure about a career in the Air Force.

"I do respect the fact that they've tried to correct the things they've done wrong," Airman 1st Class Cassandra Hernandez said in a statement released by her attorneys. "As a result of what happened this week, it does give me more hope in the system. I don't completely trust the system now."

The commander of the 43rd Airlift Wing at Pope Air Force Base decided this week to drop the charge of committing an indecent act against Hernandez, 20, who instead pleaded guilty to underage drinking and received a nonjudicial punishment, said one of her attorneys, Capt. Chris Eason.

Hernandez had been scheduled for a Sept. 24 court-martial, where she faced up to a year in prison and dismissal from the Air Force.

"I'm not angry. I'm just glad to have my life back," Hernandez said. "Overall, I'm still disappointed in how this was handled, but if they recognize the things they did wrong and can fix them for future victims, then it was all worth it."

In May 2006, about six months after she arrived at Pope, Hernandez reported she had been raped by three fellow airmen during an alcohol-fueled barracks gathering. One of the airmen was charged with rape. But after initially cooperating with prosecutors, Hernandez started to feel they no longer believed her and declined to cooperate further.

"Towards the end, I felt like I was alone," Hernandez said in an earlier interview with The Associated Press. "One reason I chose not to testify was I didn't want to put myself out there if I was not protected. I felt like I was being hung out to dry."

The Associated Press normally does not identify people alleging sexual assault, but Hernandez agreed to tell her story to reporters.

Her attorneys believe the Air Force was retaliating against her for her decision not to testify when it charged her criminally with underage drinking and committing an indecent act by having sex in the presence of others.

Three male airmen she accused of rape received nonjudicial punishment for indecent acts and were granted immunity to testify at Hernandez's trial, according to Air Force legal documents.

Capt. Beverly Mock, a wing spokeswoman, said Friday that she couldn't discuss details of the case because of privacy laws. Messages left for the prosecutors who handled the case and Col. Timothy Zadalis, commander of the 43rd Airlift Wing, were not returned Friday.

Hernandez was initially offered the same nonjudicial punishment, which Eason said she rejected because her squadron commander "had told her I am going to find you guilty."

Eason said the agreement to drop the criminal charges was reached after negotiations with prosecutors and approved by Zadalis. In a statement, he and co-counsel Capt. Omar Ashmawy said they "hope that those who are at fault are held accountable."

Hernandez enlisted in the Air Force in 2005 and was assigned as a clerk to the 43rd Airlift Wing, a unit whose missions include flying the paratroopers of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division into combat.

Ashmawy said his client is receiving support from the Air Force "as a result of the real psychological and physical trauma suffered from this sexual assault."

"We fervently hope that the lessons learned in this case will be used in the future to prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again," Ashmawy said.

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