The sexual assault cases at Aberdeen Proving Ground, which unfolded as cautionary tales about the dangers of men commanding women, are becoming on the eve of the first courts-martial volatile examinations of race.
Several chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have called for an independent investigation of the rape, forcible sodomy, assault and other felony charges leveled against 22 military men teaching at the Army training post -- the majority of whom, according to Army sources, are black. Most of the 56 alleged victims are white.
Aberdeen could put the Army's racial record on trial, something rarely challenged in the almost 50 years since President Harry S. Truman integrated the military. That would inject race into cases already burdened with the complexities of sexual assault.
"We have intentionally not kept racial breakdowns for this reason," said an Army source familiar with the Aberdeen cases. "It would be silly of us not to think we would be under a microscope when it comes to race."
NAACP leaders say the Army is placing more faith in the words of white women, almost half of whom have admitted that sex with Army superiors was consensual, than in the honor of black military men.
Black civilian leaders claim the Army has not pursued allegations against white officers and sergeants received on the Pentagon's tip line, has threatened women who have tried to recant accusations, and embarrassed at least one black sergeant by "parading" him before troops in shackles when he arrived at Aberdeen from another Army base in December.
Army criminal investigators deny each claim.
"I'm at the point now where I'm skeptical of what is being told to us because so much of what has been told to us is turning out to be 100 percent untrue," said Janice E. Grant, the NAACP's Harford County branch president.
An argument that black men are being singled out for punishment could begin unfolding in a courtroom on the Aberdeen base this month, although most legal experts say a racial persecution defense would be difficult.
"This is called a legal system, not a political system," said one Army lawyer.
The Army has long been regarded as the most progressive branch of the armed services when it comes to promoting blacks. Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell was an Army man, and the Secretary of the Army, Togo West, is black.
But military experts say studies reveal that blacks are brought to court-martial more often than whites.
"Data over the years have shown that there may have been a higher representation of minorities, African-Americans in particular" in courts-martial, said Col. Jose Bolton, director of the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute in Cocoa Beach, Fla. "But once we get into the actual court-martial, they seem to be treated fairly evenly" in sentencing.
Staff Sgt. Delmar C. Simpson, jailed at the Marine brig in Quantico, Va., will appear in court March 31 on charges that he raped, robbed, threatened and sodomized women under his instruction at Aberdeen. The case, the most serious to date, involves as many as 10 women and carries a potential penalty of life in prison.
The courtroom has been reserved for a month. Pre-trial motions will be followed by a general court-martial April 7.
Capt. Derrick Robertson will appear in court March 18 for pre-trial motions. Robertson, the only officer charged at Aberdeen, faces rape, forcible sodomy, indecent assault and other charges. He, too, faces a maximum penalty of life behind bars.
Six black sergeants and one black captain have been charged to date. Of those, Sgt. Isiah Chestnut Jr. and Sgt. 1st Class Theron Brown chose to leave the Army rather than face court-martial.
Army investigators say six other cases against sergeants have been resolved by administrative hearings, known as Article 15s, since the incidents at the U.S. Ordnance Center and School became public in November. Two black sergeants were cleared, and three others were punished with forfeiture of some monthly pay.
Charges against another sergeant were dropped after investigators discovered that he had been punished for the incident in 1995.
Army sources say nine other pending investigations involve, at least in part, allegations against nonblack sergeants at Aberdeen.
"The majority of the drill sergeants are ethnic and minority, so when these charges come up the probability of them being against someone black or ethnic is greater," said Capt. Alicia Jackson, the commander of the 143rd Ordnance Battalion's Alpha Company, who is black. "If they did the act, then now they have to pay the price."
"I don't think there's a conspiracy," she added. "I don't think all the white females got together and said, 'Let's do this.' "
But black civilian leaders say one white woman, Jessica Bleckley, is responsible for setting off the onslaught of charges against the Aberdeen sergeants. Bleckley, who received an honorable discharge in January, accused Staff Sgt. Nathanael C. Beach of threatening her after consensual sex and Simpson of raping her on a bathroom floor. Beach faces an Article 15 hearing in the coming weeks.
But Bleckley, 18, has been criticized for changing her story about her relationship with Beach and Simpson. A reported suicide attempt was later determined to be a hoax.
Also in recent weeks, a handful of alleged victims have been coming forward to either change or recant allegations. "It's been like wrestling in Jell-O," said an Army source. "They are hard to get a hold of."
Army investigators have told alleged victims that they could face court-martial for changing sworn statements -- a threat NAACP leaders claim as proof of a hidden racial motive.
One private, absent without leave for two weeks, allegedly tried to change her accusation last week against a drill sergeant after consulting with an Army chaplain. Army authorities told her she would be court-martialed if she did, according to NAACP leaders.
Another white private allegedly recanted charges against a black drill sergeant. Investigators later determined that the private's family, which deplored interracial relationships, pressured her.
Army investigators say recanting sworn testimony violates Article 107 of the military code. "False swearing" is punishable, at most, by dishonorable discharge, loss of pay and benefits, and five years' confinement.
"An inordinate amount of those accused are black, but I don't know the reason," said an Army defense lawyer. "I know that people have tried to make [race] an issue, but haven't so far. There may be a case out there where it is appropriate."
Pub Date: 3/03/97