Calling it a “huge failure” and “appalling,” former lawyers and Congressional leaders called for the Air Force to review how it handled the reporting of the domestic violence conviction against the Texas man accused of killing 26 Sunday in a mass church shooting.
The Air Force said it is investigating why it apparently failed to notify the FBI’s national crime center about a domestic violence conviction against former airman, Devin P. Kelley, 26, which would have barred him from from buying or possessing a firearm.
Don Christensen, president of the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders and a former chief prosecutor in the Air Force, said in an interview Tuesday the notification should have been made. But, the retired colonel added, it was “not surprising because the way the system worked it seemed like that was something that occurred more frequently than it should have.”
Merle F. Wilberding, a Dayton attorney and former Army Judge Advocate General lawyer, said the failure to notify the National Crime Information Center of the conviction was a “very serious breakdown.”
The military should focus its investigation to find out if this was one reporting mishap or a broader issue of procedures not being followed. “You hope it’s not widespread,” he said.
Congressional leaders react
Congressional leaders of key committees have called for a review of how the Air Force handled reporting the outcome of the conviction.
“The Air Force has acknowledged that after court martialing and convicting the perpetrator on charges of domestic assault, it failed to report the conviction to the FBI,” U.S. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement, vowing the committee will “conduct rigorous oversight of the department’s investigation into the circumstance that led to this failure.”
U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called the Air Force’s reported oversight “appalling.” The House committee was expected to review the matter.
While acknowledging the service branch has initiated an investigation, Thornberry said in a statement: “ … I don’t believe the Air Force should be left to self-police such tragic consequences. Furthermore, I am concerned that the failure to properly report domestic violence convictions may be a systematic issue.”
U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, said in part in a statement: “I fear this incident represents a larger issue within the Department of Defense to report criminal incidents.
“The Department of Defense must be certain that all crimes, including sexual assault, are properly reported across its service branches to protect our service members, their families, and all Americans,” he added. “I plan to hold a meeting of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus with my fellow Co-Chair Niki Tsongas on this issue to inquire about the ability of military service members who have sexually assaulted others to obtain guns.”
An Air Force statement said initial information indicated the airman’s domestic violence offense was not entered into the National Criminal Information Center database by the Holloman Air Force Base Office of Special Investigation. Kelley served at the New Mexico base in logistics readiness between 2010 until discharged in 2014, the Air Force said.
In 2012, the Air Force said Kelley was found guilty of two charges of domestic assault against his wife at the time and stepson during a general court martial under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Among other injuries, the airman’s stepson suffered a fractured skull, Christensen said.
A military judicial panel sentenced Kelley to 12 months. He served the time in a Navy brig in Miramar, Calif., was given a bad conduct discharge and reduced to the lowest enlisted rank, the Air Force said.
Christensen said the sentence was “shockingly light.”
Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein ordered the Air Force Inspector General to review Kelley’s case and others to ensure convictions were reported correctly.
Each military base where a case is tried, such as Wright-Patterson, has the responsibility for notifying the FBI of certain criminal convictions under the military justice system, Christensen said.
“I think anytime you have a large bureaucracy like the military sometimes things fall through the gaps and this appears to be … an example of something falling through the gap,” said Thaddeus Hoffmeister, a University of Dayton law professor and a National Guard lawyer. He added the military does treat domestic violence cases seriously.
Christensen advocated one central office should handle the responsibility to report convictions to ensure federal notification. Today, he said, “that’s 80 different places where the system could fail.”