By David Alexander
WASHINGTON, Dec 19 (Reuters) - A U.S. Air Force general who provoked outrage early this year by overturning a fighter pilot's sexual assault conviction has been removed as the officer in a rape case after dismissing the charges, military officials said on Thursday.
Lieutenant General Craig Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force, was removed in September as the officer responsible for the case against Airman First Class Brandon Wright, who was accused of raping a female sergeant at Aviano Air Base in Italy, an Air Force spokeswoman said.
Following a probable cause hearing, Franklin agreed with his legal advisers that the evidence against Wright was not strong enough to proceed to trial, the spokeswoman said. The case has since been shifted to a new jurisdiction and Wright has been charged again with rape.
The case occurred at a time when the Air Force and other military service branches were reviewing their procedures for handling sexual assault prosecutions, in part because of the outcry over Franklin's decision to overturn a jury's sexual assault conviction in the earlier case at Aviano.
That decision was one of several incidents that fueled anger this spring over a Pentagon report estimating there were 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact in the military in 2012, a 37 percent jump over the previous year. The report prompted a push by lawmakers and the military to address the issue.
Senior Air Force officials reviewed the rape case against Wright and decided that in light of a move toward new procedures, the evidence should be re-examined in a new jurisdiction to ensure the victim's concerns were fully aired, the spokeswoman said.
Wright, who was reassigned in September to the Washington area, was informed by his new commander on Nov. 12 that he had been recharged in the Aviano case. A hearing is tentatively set for January, the spokeswoman said.
News of Franklin's decision in the Wright case provoked new outrage at the general.
Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a former sex crimes prosecutor who has led efforts to reform the way the military handles assaults, called for the Air Force to remove Franklin from his command.
"Lieutenant General Franklin should not be allowed to fulfill the responsibilities of military command because he has repeatedly shown he lacks sound judgment," she said.
Kimberly Hanks, the woman who saw her alleged attacker's conviction overturned by Franklin in February, called for the general's ouster from the Air Force. She said in a statement the cases were examples of an "extremely biased and broken military justice system that must be fixed."
Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who is leading a push for tough reform of military sex crime prosecutions, said Franklin's decision in the two cases proved the need for her legislation to put prosecutors rather than commanders in charge of deciding whether to take sex crimes to trial.
"For months the military has been arguing that commanders retaining ... authority to prosecute sexual assault is the solution to the vast underreporting of sexual assault crimes in the military," she said. "Franklin is a glaring example of how wrong that is."
(Editing by Lisa Shumaker)