Lauterbach sexual assault case prompts policy reforms in military

New military rules make it easier for victims to come forward.

Key changes in military policy

  • By executive order, communication between victims and victim advocates will now be privileged. Previously conversations between victim and victim advocates can be subpoenaed in court, making victims reluctant to come forward. Pending legislation HR 1540, passed by both the House and Senate, provides for:
  • Legal assistance for victims of sexual assault. Previously, only defendants in the military have been guaranteed access to a lawyer.
  • Stricter training guidelines and greater oversight for Sexual Assault Response Coordinators and Sexual Assault Victim Advocates.
  • Retention of sexual assault records with lifetime access for service members.
  • The victim's right to a base transfer or unit transfer. Under the new law, these requests will be expedited, with decisions being made within 72 hours and the bias should be in favor of the victim.

The family of slain Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach is hailing recent provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act that profoundly change the way the Department of Defense will handle sexual assault charges.

U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Centerville said Lauterbach’s murder was the primary impetus to change the law. “We’re continuing to make progress,” Turner said. “This is pretty big.”

The bill has cleared both the House and the Senate and is awaiting President Barack Obama’s signature. Provisions include access to legal counsel for victims and the right to request a base transfer.

Lauterbach’s mother, Mary Lauterbach of Vandalia, said the new law would have made the difference in the case of her daughter, who was denied a base transfer after accusing fellow Marine Cesar Laurean of sexual assault. “Maria would be alive today if the base transfer had been available to her,” she said.

Turner concurred, “In civilian life you have complete control of your movements, and if you’re in an unsafe situation you can remove yourself. In military life, the victim needs permission to take even basic self-preservation actions.”

Lauterbach, 20, was eight months’ pregnant at the time of her murder. Laurean was convicted of first-degree murder and is serving a life sentence without parole at the Pasquotank Correctional Institution, a high-security adult male prison in Elizabeth City, N.C. Lauterbach disappeared Dec. 14, 2007, and her charred remains were found in a shallow fire pit in Laurean’s backyard in Jacksonville, N.C., on Jan. 11, 2008.

Laurean has asked the North Carolina Court of Appeals to overturn his conviction claiming the judge did not allow jurors to consider a lesser charge of second-degree murder.

Seeking justice

Since the tragedy, Mary Lauterbach and her attorney, Merle Wilberding, have worked tirelessly to change military policy on sexual assault. Lauterbach praised Turner for being with the family from the beginning: “Mike Turner has been the pit bull of the progress that has been made, because he digs in and doesn’t let go until the job is done. I can think of no representative that has been more devoted to seeing through a matter of victim justice than Mike Turner.”

Turner noted that one of the bill’s most important original provisions — ensuring confidentiality between victims and victim advocates — had been taken out because it is being accomplished through executive order instead. The new law establishes the independence of the role of the victim advocate and removing them from the chain of military command. Lauterbach’s victim advocate, in contrast, was her direct supervisor. “In the past, anything that the victims said to the victim advocate could be used against them,” Turner said.

“Now those conversations will be confidential.”

Last year, Lauterbach and Wilberding, went to Washington, D.C., and lobbied more than a dozen members of the House of Representatives about the issue.

Wilberding said he was pleased with the elevation of the status of the director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) at the Department of Defense to the level of a general or a flag officer. “Symbolically, it is very important,” he said.

Helping future victims

Lauterbach met with the current SAPRO director Maj. Gen. Mary Kay Hertog during a recent visit to Washington. “General Hertog is adamant about obtaining a clear measure of the scope of the problem, communicating the seriousness of the problem, and assuring that the victims are treated with compassion, justice and protected when appropriate,” she said. “She is a person of action.”

Turner said that every change in the law was profoundly influenced by the Lauterbach tragedy: “We didn’t just suffer the tragedy and remember the story. Mary went to work and Merle Wilberding went to work, not just to lay blame but to find answers for future victims.”

Lauterbach said she has witnessed a sea change in attitudes: “It is wonderful to see that sexual assault in the military is being recognized as a serious issue, capable of causing great harm among the military ranks and serious enough to be elevated in the amount of attention it receives.”

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