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A team of three cadets then investigates the charges, formalizes the allegations and sends the cadet in question a letter asking for an admission or denial of the charges within 48 hours. During that time, the cadet can consult with anyone he wishes, but no attorney or other representative may speak for the cadet in any of the hearings because, the academy says, the honor board is a "non-adversarial" administrative proceeding rather than a judicial one.
Watkins says he tries to ensure that cadets have a chance to consult with an attorney before they sign the charges. "If something arises where there is a legitimate reason why they cannot get to an attorney and they want to get to one, we will even work with them to give them enough time to ensure they're able to do that," he says. "We're watching out for the cadets all along the way, and the honor committee is watching out for the cadets all along the way as well."
If a cadet admits guilt, a cadet-run sanctions panel recommends punishment to the commandant. But if a cadet denies guilt -- as happens in most cases -- a Wing Honor Board of eight cadets (none from the accused's squadron) and one non-voting officer convenes to hear the case, using "reasonable doubt" as the standard for determining guilt. (The Military and Naval academies require only a preponderance of evidence.)
During the board, the accused cadet doesn't have to testify but can call witnesses and present evidence -- though only the chairman can determine what is admissible and who may be called. Deliberations are held in private, and the vote is taken by secret ballots, which are destroyed once the proceedings are complete. Six of the eight boardmembers are required to find a cadet guilty, but the boardmembers don't have to offer a rationale for their finding. If they do vote against the cadet, the committee recommends one of two sanctions to the command chain: probation or disenrollment.
And yet the honor handbook emphasizes that the code "should not be feared, but rather used as a cornerstone to help develop one's character," and that the principles behind it "give us a framework for making decisions because they are morally positive and inspiring, not because they threaten retribution."
For some Air Force cadets found guilty by an honor board, the hell really begins after they leave the academy.
Sean Dariushnia was a stellar student planning to be a career Air Force doctor. In his junior year, he'd taken 28 credit hours -- a huge course load even by academy standards -- and was frequently on the dean's list. By his senior year, he had a 3.2 grade-point average and a clean disciplinary record. He'd gotten the highest MCAT score in his 1993 graduating class and had secured a full-ride scholarship to Ohio State University's College of Medicine.
But just days before his graduation, Sean's analytical-chemistry professor accused him of cheating on his final exam. Sean's answers -- and the way he'd arrived at them -- were similar to those of another student. His lab partner.
Sean says he had no reason to cheat, since he had completed all of the coursework necessary for graduation and only enrolled in the chemistry class because he thought it would be good background for medical school. Plus, he says, "I could have failed the exam and gotten a B in the class."
When his day in court arrived, he says it was more like a kangaroo court. "The proceeding was very slanted toward the professor. They allowed testimony that was inappropriate, like when the professor said he was convinced that I'd cheated before, and now he'd caught me."
Sean tried to cross-examine the professor, but claims he was cut off for asking leading questions (a common occurrence, since cadets typically have no legal training or attorney to guide them), and the boardmembers were told not to consider lack of motive when voting. "The members at times were laughing at me," Sean remembers. "The mentality is that you're guilty and you have to prove you're innocent. I don't know what causes people to act the way they do at the academy, but it seems to be repeating itself over and over."
He talked to the academy's judge advocate general about the board. "He wanted to listen to the testimony, but for some reason, the transcript disappeared and the tape was unintelligible," Sean says. "The squadron honor officer felt the conduct of the board was horrific, and he wrote a letter saying so, but the chain of command blew it off, just like they blew off the JAG's concerns."
The day before graduation, Sean learned he wouldn't be walking with his class, so he appealed the disenrollment decision with then-Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall. He was confined to campus and only allowed to leave in August, after a board of senior academy officials reviewed his case and determined there were some irregularities. One of the officials who sat on that academy review board, Sean says, was the chairman of the chemistry department and a staunch advocate of the professor who was trying to kick him out. But the chairman didn't recuse himself from the board, which ultimately upheld the disenrollment decision. The case went on to Widnall's desk, where it sat for almost two years. During that time, Sean went home to Ohio and worked toward a bachelor's degree at Ohio State University.