Army general in sexual assault case to plead guilty to lesser charges

The New York TimesMarch 16, 2014 

— The Army general prosecuted in the military’s most closely watched sexual assault case has agreed to plead guilty to lesser charges in exchange for the dismissal of accusations that he twice forced his longtime mistress into oral sex, threatened to kill her and her family, and performed consensual but “open and notorious sexual acts” with her in a parked car in Germany and on a hotel balcony in Tucson, Ariz.

The new guilty pleas, outlined in a document obtained by The New York Times, are expected to be entered by Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair in military court at Fort Bragg, N.C., as soon as Monday morning. They would end an embarrassing two-year case against one of the military’s rising stars that was derailed this year after prosecutors concluded that their chief witness, a captain who had a three-year sexual relationship with the general, may have lied under oath at a pretrial hearing.

The pleas could still set up a showdown. Defense lawyers say military prosecutors may call the captain — as well as her parents, who are from Nebraska — as witnesses at a sentencing hearing this week, in an effort to persuade the military judge to impose tougher punishment on Sinclair.

But that would allow the general’s defense team, led by a former federal prosecutor, to cross-examine the 34-year-old woman, a military intelligence officer, with what they assert are numerous instances of contradictions or deceptions discovered during a year of trial preparation. The woman already testified earlier this month about what she said were threats from Sinclair and forced oral sex, but she was not cross-examined because the court-martial was postponed.

Sinclair, 51 and married with two children, was deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division as well as of U.S. forces in southern Afghanistan when he was recalled in 2012. Until then, he was seen within the military as an officer who could progress to division command or higher.

The general’s punishment will not be determined until a judge finishes holding the sentencing hearing. Prosecutors are expected to argue for prison time, while defense lawyers will contend that officers in similar cases have not faced jail time and have been allowed to retire at reduced rank. As one example, they cite the recent case of an Army brigadier general who lost his command and paid a $5,000 fine but was allowed to keep his rank after it was determined he had assaulted a girlfriend and committed adultery.

Had prosecutors proceeded with the sexual assault charges, Sinclair would have faced the possibility of life in prison and permanent registration as a sex offender if convicted.

Defense lawyers also say Sinclair is willing to retire as a lieutenant colonel — two rungs below his current rank, and the last at which no illegal acts are alleged to have occurred — which would probably cost him more than $1 million in total retirement pay.

Though his former lover’s problematic testimony at a hearing in January shook the prosecution team, and led the chief military prosecutor to quit the case after his bosses rejected his advice to drop charges that relied solely on her testimony, Army officials say they do not question her account of the general’s forcing her to perform oral sex against her will.

But the prosecution suffered another major setback last week when the military judge, Col. James L. Pohl, ruled that the senior Army commander overseeing the case may have been wrongly influenced by political considerations when he rejected the general’s earlier offer to resolve the charges by pleading guilty to lesser counts.

The judge’s ruling suggested that he thought military officials, under political pressure, may have stuck with the toughest charges against Sinclair despite qualms in an effort to show new resolve against sexual misconduct.

Sinclair pleaded guilty earlier this month to charges that included adultery, requesting explicit photographs from female Army officers, possessing pornography in a combat theater and seeking a date with a lieutenant.

The new guilty pleas expected to be entered Monday include disobeying a commander’s order not to contact his mistress, using demeaning language to refer to female officers and using a curse word when confronted about that conduct, and misusing his government travel charge card.

Yet the one guilty plea that may have been the break that allowed the deal to come together is a charge of “maltreatment” that a member of the defense team said was of critical importance to the general’s accuser, a member of the defense team said.

In that portion of the plea document, Sinclair admits that he treated the captain “in a manner which when viewed objectively under all the circumstances was unwarranted, unjustified and unnecessary and reasonably could have caused mental harm or suffering during the course of an ongoing inappropriate sexual relationship.”

The lead Army prosecutor on the case, who has not spoken publicly about the matter outside of the courtroom, did not respond to an emailed request for comment Sunday.

In an interview, Richard L. Scheff, the lead defense lawyer, said the plea deal would allow Sinclair to move on with his life.

“The Army finally agreed to what were the essential terms for us, taking off the table all the charges that required Gen. Sinclair to be a registered sex offender,” he said.

Scheff added that he was preparing for the possibility that he would be able to cross-examine the accuser at the sentencing hearing this week.

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