SAN JOSE -- Some U.S. military officials "looked the other way" rather than aggressively pursuing rape charges against a sexually troubled soldier who ended up killing two Santa Cruz police officers last week, former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at the officers' funeral Thursday.

Experts say Panetta's unusually strong words -- which implied that the military justice system might share some blame for the officers' deaths -- highlight the ongoing push to change a military culture that has given rise to an epidemic of sexual assault.

Jeremy Goulet, whose 2006 Army court martial in Hawaii for two purported rapes of military officers ended with a plea bargain in which he accepted an "other-than-honorable" discharge, shot and killed two officers investigating a new groping accusation against Goulet on Feb. 26. Had Goulet been convicted of the two rapes, he probably would have landed in a military prison for life.

Panetta, who just left the top job at the Pentagon last week, acknowledged Thursday that military sex offenders were not always prosecuted for the offenses they committed. "And at some point, somebody pays a price," Panetta added.

Of the 35-year-old Goulet, who was killed in a gun battle with police and sheriff's deputies, Panetta said: "We do know that he had a history of sexual violence both in and out of the military. And for whatever reason, people somehow always looked the other way."

Elizabeth Hillman, a UC Hastings law professor and president of the National Institute for Military Justice, said Panetta's words are particularly poignant coming from someone who had spoken out publicly on the issue of sexual violence in the military -- and set new policies.

"I think he realizes it hasn't been enough," said Hillman, who in January testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about military rape and sexual assault.

In September, Panetta set new policies to let rape victims rapidly transfer out of units in which they were assaulted, requiring that such cases be handled by senior, not unit, commanders. He also moved to create special investigative units and called for prosecuting more sex offenders.

Chuck Hagel, the new U.S. secretary of defense, vowed at his Jan. 31 confirmation hearing to "continue the important work" Panetta began to combat military sex crimes. "I agree it is not good enough just to say zero tolerance," Hagel said. "The whole chain of command needs to be accountable for this, all the way down to the bottom."

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, has authored a bill to create a Sexual Assault Oversight and Response Council, composed mainly of civilians, as an independent entity outside the Defense Department's chain of command. The council would appoint and advise an office responsible for investigating, preventing and reducing sexual assaults, and a director responsible for overseeing all military sex-crime prosecutions. Speier couldn't be reached for comment Thursday.

Mark Stevens, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and former military judge now teaching criminology at Cal State Fresno, on Thursday agreed with Panetta "that as we went into having more women in the military, we went through phases where perhaps some things were not done that should've been done."

But he seemed surprised that a case like Goulet's would have been plea-bargained out to a military discharge.

Having both prosecuted and defended courts martial, Stevens said he "never saw anybody get cut any slack on a sexual offense. If there's any quarter for anybody, it's at the lower level not pushing it up (to be charged)."

Josh Richman covers politics. Contact him at 510-208-6428. Follow him at Twitter.com/josh_richman. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.