Could Dripping Springs soldier go free after sex assault conviction?

DRIPPING SPRINGS, Texas (KXAN) — The mother of a Dripping Springs soldier found guilty of sexual assault says he’s innocent and a military judge also says the case should be overturned.

GOING IN-DEPTH // The Chestnut Case

  • The commander who brings the charges has historically had the power to overturn a decision.
    However, changes at the federal level no longer allow the practice in this kind of case.
  • Walter Huffman with Texas Tech University spoke with KXAN News on the phone. He’s a retired Major General in the U.S. Army and formerly the top military lawyer for the Army. He called the judge’s comments unusual.
    Still, he said he’s familiar with the judge in this case, and the judge is an experienced one. “He clearly believed that the case had not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt, which of course is the standard in a criminal trial,” said Huffman.
  • Huffman says the change at the federal level could complicate what happens next. However, he says it may still be possible for the commanding officer to overturn the guilty finding.

Thomas Chestnut, Jr. was was found guilty of sexual assault in June. At the beginning of July, he was sentenced to three years in prison, a reduction in rank from private first class to private, and dishonorable discharge.

“He’s totally innocent… there’s no way he would ever do anything like this,” said Melissa Chestnut, Thomas’ mother. “[I'm] totally heartbroken by it. I don’t understand how the system could be such a disapointment to its people.”

Melissa Chestnut says her son Thomas joined the Army with aspirations of becoming a combat medic. Those dreams where dashed after charges that her son had sexually assaulted another man at Fort Sam Houston in 2012.

Melissa Chestnut says her son believed the relationship was consensual, but the prosecution says the other soldier was on Ambien. Melissa says the judge recommended the guilty finding of a panel be overturned.

“Every chance I get I’m trying to do research on the drug Ambien,” said Melissa Chestnut. “I’m trying to do research on the legal system in the military.”

KXAN News has not yet been able to obtain the transcripts of what happened in the proceedings for Chestnut. However, military editor for the Killeen Daily Herald, Rose Thayer, was in the room during the sentencing phase. She says the alleged victim testified by phone from his post in Germany.

Thayer says the victim told the jury he has nightmares and is still seeking counseling, and she says the judge didn’t give a reason for why he recommended the case get overturned.

“The judge basically said he had been researching himself how to overturn the findings of the jury panel,” said Thayer. “Then he said I’ll recommend to the convening attorney to overturn the conviction.”

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