- Brazos County, Texas jail
- Sammy Tawakkol
The two cases involving Sammy Tawakkol also underscore how civilian courts often impose harsher penalties on military members than commanders do, according to retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen. A 23-year military prosecutor, Christensen is president of Protect Our Defenders, a nonprofit that advocates for military members who are victims of sexual assault and harassment and monitors such cases.
“Given the opportunity to send a clear message to 4,000 cadets that this is unacceptable, they sent this guy to a misdemeanor court and argued for a punishment you’d give somebody for being late to work,” Christensen says of the Academy. “That’s not taking it seriously.”
He also alleges the Academy failed to disclose to at least one victim, and perhaps others, that they could have opted to send the case to a civilian court.
The Academy defended its handling of the case, saying in written comments that Sammy Tawakkol spent 31/2 months in the Teller County Jail for pre-trial confinement and another six months in “intensive mental health treatment.” He also is being disenrolled, likely “under other than honorable conditions,” which is “the worst possible administrative characterization.” The conviction, the Academy added, “will remain on Tawakkol’s record for the rest of his life.”
Tawakkol was 20 when he pleaded guilty in January to taking pictures of female cadets in an Academy restroom without their knowledge during the 2016 fall semester. When caught, Tawakkol was allowed to keep his cell phone used to snap the photos when he was sent home to Texas, Christensen says.
“Somebody’s head should roll just for that,” he adds. “You don’t let a suspect walk off with the evidence.” Though Tawakkol tried to destroy the photos, the Academy retrieved some of them after he returned to school for the spring semester in 2017.
Later, on another trip home to Texas, Tawakkol was arrested for the same offense. This time, he was caught taking pictures in a restroom at Texas A&M University in College Station, where he’d competed in a Rubik’s Cube contest.
He confessed in both cases.
The Academy sent the case through a special court, designed for low-level crimes where jail time isn’t an option. A judge sentenced him in January to two months of restricted living in an Academy dorm room, a two-thirds cut in pay and an other-than-honorable discharge.
“The fact is, when this trial was done, this guy just walked off ... whereas in Texas, the guy is sitting in jail now.” click to tweetIn a civilian court in Brazos County, Texas, however, a judge on March 27 ordered him to serve 120 days of a two-year prison sentence and placed him on five years of probation. He also was fined $2,000 and ordered to serve 200 hours of community service. If he re-offends, he’ll serve the full sentence.
“It’s a study in the difference between a full-time professional criminal justice system and what the military insists on keeping in the hands of commanders,” says Christensen. “It also shows the problem with having very busy generals act in this role when they don’t understand what the legal requirements are.” (The military system vests prosecution decisions with base commanders, who aren’t lawyers and who have the authority to overturn convictions rendered by a military panel. Civilian criminal cases are tried by professional prosecutors.)
Besides going easy on Tawakkol, Christensen says the Academy lied to victims by saying he would face mandatory listing on a sex offender registry, which wasn’t true, and that the sentence was the “going rate” for the offense.
“There is no such thing as a ‘going rate’ in the military,” he says. “Every case is different.” In fact, he adds, similar cases at the U.S. Military Academy and in the Navy have resulted in three years of confinement.
In addition, the Academy failed to inform victims they had the power to decide whether Tawakkol would be prosecuted in a civilian or military court, in accord with a law adopted by Congress in recent years that pertains to certain crimes, this one included.
“If they choose civilian, the convening authority [commander] must inform the local civilian jurisdiction of the victims’ selection. They never told any of the victims of this right,” Christensen says.
A female cadet who wished to remain unnamed said in a statement at the Academy hearing that she would have preferred a civilian court. “This could have changed the course of this case,” the statement said, “but we will never know because this right was taken away from me. I was never asked or even advised I had a right to make my preference known to civilian authorities.”
The Academy admitted prosecutors didn’t tell victims of the civilian court option, but rather relied on special victims’ counsel, which is contrary to requirements of the law. The Academy asserted that victims preferred military court.
Being photographed by Tawakkol has had a profound impact on the aforementioned female cadet, she said in the statement. She has trouble sleeping, suffers from nightmares and worries about being followed or watched. “I no longer feel safe,” she said. “I keep my head down and I walk quicker at night.”
- The AFA and a civilian court handled the same criminal differently.
Christensen reports that a meeting between him and the female cadet with Academy Commandant of Cadets Brig. Gen. Kristin Goodwin and Superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, who inherited the Tawakkol decision from his predecessor, Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, wasn’t encouraging.
“They were trying to put it on her, saying, ‘The other victims wanted this,’ and ‘Shouldn’t you be concerned about what they wanted?’,” Christensen says. “I honestly think the other victims weren’t informed with the truth, so they didn’t make an informed decision.”
The Academy said Goodwin and Silveria told the female cadet they weren’t able to rescind the deal made by Johnson.
Christensen’s goal is to remove criminal justice decisions from commanders who aren’t trained in the law, a debate that’s been simmering among Congress members and others for years. In some cases, commanders have vacated sexual assault convictions with the stroke of a pen, only to see the exonerated member re-offend later.
Christensen says Protect our Defenders collects data on whether military prosecutors inform victims of the right to civilian prosecution. So far, the agency has found “most have not been told,” and notes the military itself doesn’t track whether those advisories are given.
In the Tawakkol case, the difference between military and civilian treatment was clear.
“The fact is, when this trial was done, this guy just walked off,” Christensen says. “That shows you how seriously the Air Force took it. Whereas in Texas, the guy is sitting in jail now.”