TODAY   |  March 13, 2013

Woman in Air Force sexual assault case speaks out

In an exclusive interview, Kimberly Hanks, the woman who won a sexual assault court case against an Air Force combat pilot only to see the jury’s conviction erased by a top Air Force commander said the message sent to other women is “don’t bother” reporting crimes. NBC News’ Michael Isikoff reports.

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>> assaults in the u.s. military . some lawmakers are outraged over one case in particular. an air force general who just overturned the conviction of a top combat pilot for assaulting a woman at his home. now in an exclusive interview with nbc fews the accuser is telling her side of the story. here's nbc 's michael isikoff .

>> i couldn't let this guy get away with it.

>> reporter: kimberly hanks is speaking out for the first time about testifying last year that she was sexually assaulted by air force lieutenant colonel james wilkerson , an f-16 combat pilot in italy. hanks, a physician's assistant, and some co-workers were socializing at wilkerson 's home and she ended up sleeping in the guest bedroom.

>> i felt some -- discomfort. the lights came on which woke me up. i opened my eyes and he was in bed with me with his hands down my pants.

>> reporter: a military jury believed her. wilkerson was convicted in a court-martial last november, stripped of his rank and sentenced to a year in prison. but now a startling reversal. a top air force commander , lieutenant general craig franklin, has dismissed the verdict and freed lieutenant colonel wilkerson . what was your reaction?

>> i was absolutely stunned. it looks to me like he is protecting one of his own.

>> reporter: general franklin never attended the trial, but after a thorough review of the entire record and related materials concluded there was insufficient evidence to support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt , a spokesman said. the decision is creating an uproar on capitol hill where members say it sends precisely the wrong message to a military suffering an epidemic of sexual assaults .

>> i question now whether that unit that the man returns to whether there is any chance a woman sexually assaulted in that unit would say a word. the general said that jury's decision didn't matter.

>> reporter: now they are pressing to strip his authority to over turn jury verdicts. in a statement wilkerson 's lawyer accused them of political grand standing and said they hope others will recognize some women make false claims of sexual abuse . kimberly hanks said she's frustrated but has no regrets.

>> i did the right thing. i reported it. i told the truth.

>> reporter: michael isikoff , nbc news, washington.