Military Injustice

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: United States

Publishing organisation: The Texas Tribune, ProPublica

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 2022-08-09

Language: English

Authors: Vianna Davila, Lexi Churchill, Ren Larson


Vianna Davila is a reporter with the ProPublica-Texas Tribune Investigative Initiative.

Lexi Churchill is a research reporter for the ProPublica-Texas Tribune Investigative Initiative.

Ren Larson was a data reporter for the ProPublica-Texas Tribune Investigative Initiative.

Project description:

Our first-of-its-kind analysis revealed that Army soldiers accused of sexual assault are less than half as likely to be locked up ahead of trial than those accused of offenses like drug use and distribution, disobeying an officer or burglary.

Annually, hundreds of soldiers face trial in military courts for offenses ranging from murder to failure to report for duty. The military justice system is largely separate from the civilian legal process and unknown to many Americans. Military commanders, who aren’t required to be trained lawyers, wield significant influence and can detain soldiers awaiting trial through a process called pretrial confinement.

Impact reached:

After our story was published, Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat whose district includes one of the nation’s largest Army posts, said the investigation into pretrial confinement was “eye-opening” and called for congressional hearings to examine the issue. Escobar, who is vice chair of the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel, said she plans to explore ways to ensure all cases across the military are held to the same standard. The Army also said its pretrial confinement rules are “currently under revision” in a statement to Military Times, which is partnering with ProPublica and The Texas Tribune to report on military justice. One former military lawyer who spoke with the news organizations told us our exploration of pretrial confinement hit on an important issue that had previously gone unexamined by the services.

The investigation was republished in more than a dozen local and military publications across the state. The Gray TV network created an entire broadcast package based on our reporting as well.

Techniques/technologies used:

The newsrooms obtained the Army’s Court-Martial Information System (ACMIS) through a Freedom of Information Request. The database took months to clean before it was ready for analysis. It was initially provided in 11 separate tables, but the Army redacted the soldiers’ Social Security numbers, which served as unique identifiers that would allow the newsrooms to properly account for soldiers who had multiple court cases. Data reporter Ren Larson built a strong working relationship with the clerk of the court, the database administrator and the public affairs officer, who agreed to generate and provide a list of identifiers for soldiers with names that appeared multiple times in the database.

The database also contained offense codes, but those have changed over time, requiring Larson to spend months researching and updating the information with the military’s current charge identifications. For example, the military’s criminal laws used to group certain consensual and nonconsensual sexual acts under the same article when charging soldiers. We aligned these rape and sexual assault charges with the most recent edition of the manual and did not count charges related to consensual acts.

Reporters relied on military law experts and individuals familiar with the way Army records are maintained to inform our analysis and review our findings. Experts provided guidance on the accuracy of data fields, informed our approach to standardize charges and helped to vet our findings.

Context about the project:

After decades of resistance from military leaders and lawmakers, Congress reached a deal in December 2021 on a broad overhaul of the military justice system, stripping commanders of most of their authority to prosecute sexual assaults and several other types of criminal cases.

While lawmakers celebrated the narrowly crafted reforms, reporters Vianna Davila, Lexi Churchill and Ren Larson methodically unraveled major gaps in the compromise legislation, highlighted commanders’ continued outsized influence over the military justice system, and brought transparency and accountability to a military justice system that largely operates out of the public eye.

The newsrooms ran into significant obstacles and severe delays when trying to obtain Army records necessary to report on this system Unlike in the civilian system, the military requires people to submit a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain court records. These requests are often submitted to an Army office with a hefty, ongoing backlog. For example, it took nearly a year for the military to release basic court records for pretrial confinement cases.

Reporters negotiated for up to a year for records. In some cases, they are still waiting for documents. In instances in which documents were eventually released, records were often incomplete.

Davila, Churchill and Larson built relationships with attorneys and soldiers’ families to obtain additional documentation. With a combination of the Army database, documents from families and soldiers’ attorneys and records obtained through FOIA, reporters pieced together gripping narratives that exposed untackled flaws in the military justice system.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

The military justice system has far-reaching implications for service members, their families and the communities where they live. It took decades of scandals and political uproar before Congress substantially addressed the epidemic of sexual assaults in the military. Surveys have found an increasing lack of trust in the military, and only a small percentage of Americans currently serve in the armed forces. All of these factors speak to the need for reporting like ours that pushes back against the system’s opaqueness and calls for continued scrutiny.

Most journalists likely have little experience navigating entities like the Army and the Department of Defense. Our project provides a framework for how to deal with these agencies, reveals the existence of available courts martial data (which one military expert told us they had no idea was even accessible to the public) and, through the data methodology explainer written by data reporter Ren Larson, provides strategies for how to work with this data. Larson’s breakdown of pretrial confinement rates at Army posts across the country was a highly useful tool that other news organizations could use to localize their own stories about the issue. We also opened a door on a military justice topic – pretrial confinement – that has gotten almost no media attention.

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