Commanders will no longer be involved in military sexual harassment or sexual assault investigations under a new federal law named for a murdered Fort Hood soldier that goes into effect on Jan. 1. Provisions of the “I Am Vanessa Guillén Act” were included in the $770 billion National Defense Authorization Act that was signed by President Biden on Monday, the Texas Tribune and ProPublica report. Under the new law, the decision to prosecute sexual assault and sexual harassment will be made outside service members’ chain of command and they will be offered protections against retaliation. A similar state law was signed into law last summer.
The federal legislation also moves prosecution authority for other offenses — including murder, kidnapping, domestic violence and child abuse — to independent prosecutors. For these cases, it also establishes sentencing to be decided by judges as well as sentencing parameters. Previously, sentences could have been recommended by panels of officers who often had no guidance on minimum sentences. The law is named for Houston resident Vanessa Guillén, who was a 20-year-old Army private first class stationed at Fort Hood when she disappeared in April 2020. Her family said Guillén had told them she had complained of being sexually harassed by another soldier before she disappeared. Her remains were discovered two months later. The murder prompted calls for reform from her family and members of Congress about the way harassment and assault in the military are handled. The search for Guillén zeroed in on Army Spec. Aaron Robinson, who was initially detained by military investigators, then slipped from the Army’s grasp and eventually killed himself as police moved in to arrest him. Fourteen Army leaders were eventually fired or suspended.