Bragg general pleads guilty to affair, improper relationships
Posted March 6, 2014
Fort Bragg, N.C. — A U.S. Army general accused of sexually assaulting a junior officer pleaded guilty Thursday to three lesser charges but maintains his innocence on allegations that he forced her to perform oral sex.
Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, a former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, had previously entered pleas of not guilty to all eight charges. He still faces a court-martial, set to begin Friday at Fort Bragg, on three counts after prosecutors dropped two others Thursday.
Sinclair pleaded guilty to committing adultery, which is a crime in the military, as well as to violating orders by possessing pornography in Afghanistan and to conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman regarding having inappropriate relationships with three other women under his command.
Col. James Pohl will sentence him on those charges at the conclusion of his court-martial. He faces up to 15 years in prison total on the three charges.
"Gen. Sinclair has always acknowledged the mistakes he’s made. He’s wanted to plead guilty to these charges since Day One. In the civilian world, what he’s pleading to are not even crimes,” defense attorney Richard Scheff said.
Scheff called the plea a strategic move to increase the likelihood that Sinclair would be found not guilty at trial.
"The remainder of the case is remarkably weak. He’ll get acquitted, and we’ll walk out,” the lawyer said.
The primary accuser in the case is a female captain who claims Sinclair twice ended arguments about their relationship by unzipping his pants and forcing her head into his lap.
The woman says Sinclair threatened to kill her family if she told anyone about their three-year affair, which continued after the alleged assaults.
Sinclair faces life in prison if convicted of the sexual assault charges.
He spent part of Thursday recounting in graphic detail their relationship, which started in 2009 while they were stationed in Iraq.
By admitting guilt on the three charges for which there is the strongest evidence, the married father of two narrows the focus of the upcoming trial to charges that rely heavily on the testimony and credibility of his former mistress.
"They have the testimony of one person who has been utterly discredited at every turn, given inconsistent statements, who’s lied on the stand," Scheff said. "That is not someone who you can rely on for proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and it is not something this panel should rely on.”
The defense will present evidence at trial that the accuser lied under oath during a pretrial hearing in January about her handling of old iPhone containing messages between her and Sinclair. Lawyers for Sinclair have painted the woman as a scorned lover who only reported the sexual assault allegations after the general refused to leave his wife.
The captain testified that, on Dec. 9, shortly after what she described as a contentious meeting with prosecutors, she rediscovered the old iPhone stored in a box at her home that still contained saved text messages and voicemails from the general. After charging the phone, she testified she synced it with her computer to save photos before contacting her attorney.
However, a forensic expert hired by the defense examined the phone and determined that the accuser powered up the device more than two weeks before the meeting with prosecutors. She also tried to make a call and performed a number of other operations, the expert said.
During a pretrial hearing this week, a top Pentagon lawyer testified that the lead prosecutor assigned to the case for nearly two years, Lt. Col. William Helixon, had urged that the most serious charges against Sinclair be dropped after he became convinced the captain had lied to him about the cell phone. Helixon was overruled by his superiors and then removed from the case last month, after suffering what was described as a profound moral crisis that led to his being taken to a military hospital for a mental health evaluation.
The case against Sinclair, believed to be the most senior member of the U.S. military ever to face trial on sexual assault charges, comes as the Pentagon grapples with a troubling string of revelations involving rape and sexual misconduct within the ranks. Influential members of Congress are also pushing to remove decisions about the prosecution of sex crimes from the military chain of command.
Sinclair's defense team failed this week to convince Pohl that military leaders were pushing the general's prosecution to make a public example of him and that the charges should therefore be dismissed.
"I’m not an expert on Congress and the congressional process, but I do agree that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s bill is appropriate," Scheff said. "I think the process, that a change is necessary.”