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NEWS | Jan. 2, 2024

Army stands up Special Trial Counsel with independent authority for 13 UCMJ offenses

By Shannon Collins Army News Service

The Congressionally mandated Office of Special Trial Counsel officially stood up on Dec. 28, 2023, with independent prosecution and referral authority for 13 UCMJ offenses known as “covered offenses.”

“Today marks a historic day for the Army as the Office of Special Trial Counsel begins exercising its independent decision-making and prosecution authority for sexual assault, domestic violence and other serious offenses,” said Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth. “The Office of Special Trial Counsel will execute its mission to seek justice in the best interests of the Army community and build trust in the military justice system by employing a worldwide team of highly skilled and specially trained attorneys and legal professionals.”

Col. Rob Rodrigues, acting lead special trial counsel, will bring 22 years of courtroom experience, serving as a prosecutor, defense counsel and supervisor of military justice practitioners.

“The creation of our office has been years in the making and was born out of the recognition that the Army needs to improve the way it processes and prosecutes serious crimes,” he said. “We have taken the lessons learned of the past 20 years and built an organization at the direction of Congress designed to improve decision-making and the handling of cases at every phase of the military justice process.”

The Office of Special Trial Counsel is headquartered at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and operates 28 field offices across the Army.

Beginning today, the office will become responsible for making independent decisions about serious offenses such as sexual assault, domestic violence and murder. This includes the authority to send a case to a court martial. This authority was traditionally held by commanders.

“This change will ensure that each case is evaluated by an independent and objective legal expert,” he said. “If we determine a case should go to trial, the attorneys who work in our office, known as Special Trial Counsel, will be responsible for prosecuting the case.”

Maj. Amanda P. Beckham is a Special Trial Counsel attorney at the Fort Jackson field office.

“This independence means that the attorneys, much like in a civilian district attorney office, are deciding which cases go forward to trial based upon the case’s evidence,” she said.

Rodrigues said the most important feature of this initiative is the exercise of independent decision-making regarding the disposition and prosecution of cases by the OSTC.

“Our office has been empowered to independently evaluate and prosecute cases based on the facts and evidence, free from outside influence,” he said. “Our goal is to seek justice in every case. We will evaluate cases based on the evidence and apply an expert legal review to determine which cases should go forward to trial. We will ensure this process is fair for all involved in the military justice process.”

The Secretary of the Army said it will be a collaborative approach among the commanders and the special trial counsel.

“While the Office of Special Trial Counsel assumes some of the authority previously held by commanders with regards to the disposition of allegations, commanders still retain the overall responsibility for the well-being of Soldiers and mitigating the impact of these incidents within their units,” she said.

Rodrigues said the OSTC has two main goals. The first is to seek justice in every case.

“We will evaluate each case on the merits and apply a rigorous review to determine which cases should go forward to trial,” he said. “We will make disposition decisions in light of the evidence, the interests of the Army, which includes the alleged victim, all while respecting the due process rights of Soldiers accused of misconduct.”

His team’s second goal is to restore and promote trust in the military justice system.

“We will accomplish this by employing a team of highly trained and qualified expert prosecutors, paralegals and support personnel who are the best at what they do in the Army,” he said. “We will treat victims with respect and care. Throughout every phase of the case, we will communicate with victims and ensure they are informed and have the opportunity to provide input into our decisions. We will hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards and ensure the rights of accused Soldiers are always respected.”

Beckham said the Special Trial Counsel will provide victims with honest, clear communications.

“A victim may be more willing to come forward if he or she knows that the Special Trial Counsel may exercise authority over potential misconduct,” she said. “One of our goals is to have a personal meeting with each victim to inform them of case progress or case disposition.”

“I want victims to know that our office is fully committed to seeking justice and earning back trust in the system,” Rodrigues said. “If you report a crime, it will be thoroughly investigated, and our office will make the best decision we can based on the evidence. You will have the opportunity to provide input about your case directly to our prosecutors. You will be treated fairly and with compassion throughout the entire process, regardless of the final outcome of your case.”

Rodrigues said his office is the largest, best trained, most experienced group of prosecutors the Army has assembled into one organization in the 22 years he has served.

“Each Special Trial Counsel prosecutor has been hand-selected and certified to serve in our office,” he said. “Supporting them are our NCO paralegals and Special Victim liaisons, who will provide compassionate support to victims throughout each case. I’m in awe of the talent we have in this organization that truly represents the best of Army legal professionals.”