A Coast Guardsman was acquitted Friday of two charges of aggravated sexual contact, following a nearly two-year-long debate over the definition of rape and sexual misconduct under military code.

Petty Officer 3rd Class William Bisel was charged with two violations of Article 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice last year following an incident aboard a vessel based out of Sitka in April 2012.

Following protocol under Article 32 of the same code, an investigation was begun into the accusations from a female seaman who accused Bisel of touching her against her will. The investigation revealed evidence sufficient for charges to be filed.

A military judge initially ruled that the charges laid against Bisel were "defective based on [her] reading of the elements and definitions" of Article 120, which defines, for military proceedings, rape and sexual misconduct for military service members. According to court documents, the terms used by the prosecuting counsel to describe the sexual nature of the alleged assault used the word “vulva” rather than “genital opening”, which the judge said was not covered under Article 120.

In their appeal, the prosecution claimed the court looked outside the statute for the meaning of a sexual assault as based on specific organs, rather than the nature of the act itself against any person. Citing the Sexual Abuse Act of 1986 and the NDAA 2006, the prosecution put forth the argument that any action against a person’s body with the intent of forced sexual conduct was definable as rape, and thus the charges against Bisel should stand, regardless of phrasing in describing the specific nature of the alleged assault.  

An appeal was filed by the prosecuting counsel in October 2013, but the date for the new trial was pushed back due to a procedural delay in the court. The trial began on Monday, March 24, and on Friday, a military panel acquitted Bisel of the charges and specifications of the accusations.

Once acquitted from military court, a person may be charged with the same crime in a civilian court of law.