Two soldiers faced criminal charges — Their commanders treated their pretrial confinement very differently

ProPublica and Texas Tribune analysis finds “that soldiers in the Army are more likely to be locked up ahead of trial for drug offenses than for sexual assault under a system that gives commanders control.”
A look at pretrial confinement rates in the military in partnership with ProPublica and Texas Tribune. Reporter: Andy Pierrotti. Videojournalist: Luke Carter.
Published: Nov. 7, 2022 at 10:11 AM MST
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(InvestigateTV) - Caution to readers: this story contains details of sexual assaults. This story is in partnership with and based on the research and analysis of ProPublica and Texas Tribune.

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Nicole Graham proudly shows off a room in her home she rarely allows visitors inside. It’s filled with pictures and memories dedicated to her late daughter Asia Graham.

“She loved the military. Loved, loved, loved being a solider,” said Graham tightly holding a stuffed bear wearing military fatigues. Across the room is an American flag bearing her daughter’s name.

Her daughter enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2019 shortly after graduating high school. In her swearing-in ceremony, Asia promised to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, not knowing she would need protection herself from a danger within the military months later.

Asia Graham was a soldier who died at after accidentally overdosing on drugs at 19-years-old....
Asia Graham was a soldier who died at after accidentally overdosing on drugs at 19-years-old. She wrote a letter to her mother saying she felt the military failed to take action against a fellow solider she said sexually assaulted her.(Family-Provided Photo)

“Asia referred to it as ‘the incident.’ She couldn’t tell me her pain. She didn’t want to burden me,” said her mother in an interview at her North Carolina home this past September.

The incident Asia had a difficult time telling her mother was a sexual assault by Christian Alvarado, a fellow solider. Both were stationed at Ft. Bliss in El Paso, Texas.

According to a signed confession obtained from the Army, Alvarado told Army investigators, “She was drunk and so was I…We had sex, but she passed out.”

When asked why he continued to have sex with Asia, Alvarado told an investigator, “I was in the moment.”

During the same interrogation, the 20-year-old was questioned about a second sexual assault allegation involving a different woman. Alvarado told the military investigator that sex with her was “wrong due to how intoxicated she was.”

If Alvarado been a civilian, a county prosecutor likely would have charged him with a crime. A judge would then have placed him in jail, to wait for his day in court if he couldn’t afford to post bail. But, that’s not how it works in the Army.

Military commanders determine whether soldiers accused of crimes get pretrial confinement, similar to county jails for civilians.

Despite his confessions, Army commanders let Alvarado go at the time.

A month later, a third woman accused Alvarado of sexual assault.

“They should have locked him up as soon as Asia said something,” said Graham. Instead, Alvarado’s commanders would later give him permission to leave the base.

Some military law experts say Alvarado’s commanders made the wrong move.

“Why would you grant this guy a privilege of leave knowing that there are three allegations of that he’s a sexual predator?” said Geoffrey Corn, Director of the Center for Military law and policy at Texas Tech University school of law. He served as a military prosecutor and a public defender.

“From what I know about the case at Ft. Bliss, I would have recommended pretrial confinement,” said Corn.

An investigation by ProPublica and the Texas Tribune uncovered the potential problem, analyzing nearly 8,400 general court-martial cases over the past decade at 29 Army bases across the country.

The analysis found soldiers accused of sexual assault are less than half as likely to be placed in pretrial confinement than those accused of other offenses like drug use and distribution, disobeying an officer or burglary.

It’s happening in Army bases across the country.

At Ft. Riley in Kansas, soldiers accused of other offenses were placed in pretrial confinement 16.7% of the time. That’s more than twice as often than when accused of sexual assault, at 8.3%.

And at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, it was more than three times higher.

ProPublica and the Texas Tribune analyzed thousands of general court-martial cases at 29 Army bases across the country. Find out how ProPublica and the Texas Tribune tracked pretrial confinement rates here.

Read about the methodology used here.

Another Soldier, Different Pretrial Confinement Outcome

Olivia Ochoa understands the impact of the broad discretion military commanders have handing down pretrial confinement.

While stationed at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, the U.S. Army charged her with drug possession and disobeying orders. The 19-year-old spent 103 days in pretrial confinement. Most of that time was spent alone.

“It’s like I was falling apart, but every day I was just like, ‘It’s okay, I’m okay,’” said Ochoa in an interview at family’s San Antonio home.

While in confinement, the San Antonio native stopped eating, barely slept and began to lose her hair. Military records show she tried to take her own life.

Pvt. Olivia Ochoa was held in pretrial confinement after being accused of drug possession and...
Pvt. Olivia Ochoa was held in pretrial confinement after being accused of drug possession and other minor offenses. Her case illustrates how the practice is sometimes used unevenly amongst soldiers.(Luke Carter, InvestigateTV)

Ochoa doesn’t think she received fair treatment after learning commanders did not immediately put Alvarado in pretrial confinement following multiple claims of sexual assault.

“I was just like, ‘How did you see me at the same level as this guy?” Ochoa said. “I just feel like me smoking a little bit of weed is not the equivalent of that in anyway.”

Before she left the Army, Ochoa reported a fellow soldier raped her off-base weeks prior to being placed in confinement. Both were drinking. She passed out.

“When I had woken up, he was on top of me. He was in the process of raping me,” Ochoa said.

The military found no probable cause to charge her accused. Ochoa felt that no one believed her.

“I think they figured that she’s just a druggy trying to get out of my charges, trying to get some sympathy,” she said.

A Fort Huachuca spokesperson said the Army takes sexual assault allegations seriously and conducted a thorough and independent investigation into Ochoa’s case.

Ft. Bliss commanders put Alvarado in pre-trial confinement in March 2021 – after two more women came forwarded with sexual assault claims.

A military judge found him guilty of sexually assaulting Asia and another woman. He’s serving 18 years in a military prison.

A former Fort Bliss spokesperson told our ProPublica and Texas Tribune partners that conditions to justify placing Alvarado in pretrial confinement were not initially met, but declined to clarify any further.

Army officials defended its pretrial confinement system. It says the nature of a soldier’s offense is one factor to consider in a decision to put someone in pretrial confinement, but it is not the sole factor. The Army says a soldier’s willingness to follow orders also plays a role.

“What this story has exposed is that there’s this sliver of this whole broader sexual assault response effort that’s kind of been overlooked. And that’s pretrial restraint,” Corn said.

Asia never got to see her room full of tributes. She died from an accidental overdose on New Years Eve 2020.

Her mom believes Asia was self-medicating to numb the trauma from her sexual assault.

“I gave the army a healthy 19-year-old girl strong and everything, and I got back a box with a flag on top,” Graham said.

Read ProPublica and Texas Tribune’s full investigation here.

If you have experience with the military justice system, reach out to ProPublica and the Texas Tribune using this form.