Judge accepts plea deal in Army general sex case
Posted March 17, 2014
FORT BRAGG, N.C. — A Fort Bragg general who admitted to inappropriate relationships with three soldiers who had served under his command pleaded guilty Monday to lesser charges as prosecutors dropped the most serious – sexual assault counts – as part of a deal.
The hearing capped the high-profile prosecution of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair and comes as the military continues to grapple with revelations of sex crimes in its ranks and political pressure to address the issue.
A sentencing hearing for Sinclair – believed to be the highest-ranking U.S. military officer to face court-martial on sexual assault charges – began Monday afternoon with testimony from his primary accuser and her mother.
Sinclair pleaded to the lesser charges of failure to obey an order, cruelty and maltreatment and conduct unbecoming an officer in exchange for the Army dropping sexual assault charges and two other counts that might have required him to register as a sex offender. Col. James Pohl, the military judge overseeing the case, accepted his guilty pleas.
Sinclair, 51, the former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, had been accused of twice forcing a female captain under his command to perform oral sex during a three-year extramarital affair.
The decorated 27-year Army veteran choked up during his guilty plea and had to pause to get a drink of water. He told Pohl that he had failed the captain as a leader and a mentor.
During the sentencing hearing, which is expected to continue Tuesday, the captain said she felt trapped in her relationship with Sinclair and believed the military would cover up the affair and end her career if she went public about it. She tearfully recalled contemplating suicide and continues to doubt the sincerity of senior military officials.
Sinclair's defense team read portions of the journal the captain kept during the affair to suggest that the suicide threat was simply made to get the general's attention. The defense argued that she wanted Sinclair to leave his wife and family, despite her statements to the contrary.
The captain's mother testified that her daughter has been distraught and depressed for more than two years and now sleeps on the couch at home with a gun under her pillow and a Doberman by her side.
Under the plea deal reached over the weekend, Sinclair also admits to abusing a government credit card he used while traveling to visit his mistress. Two weeks ago, he pleaded guilty to adultery, which is a crime in the military, engaging in inappropriate relationships, obstruction of justice and other counts of conduct unbecoming an officer.
According to the defense, a separate agreement reached with Fort Bragg commander Maj. Gen. Clarence K.K. Chinn, who approved the plea deal, will dictate what punishments Sinclair will receive.
That part of the agreement will remain secret until after Pohl conducts the sentencing hearing. He will sentence Sinclair based on the evidence presented, and Sinclair will then receive the lesser punishment of either Pohl's sentence or the agreement reached with Chinn.
The legal agreement is likely to require a punishment far less severe than the maximum penalties to the charges he pleaded guilty to of 15 years in prison and dismissal from the Army.
Sinclair may face additional administrative penalties from the Army, which could force him to retire at reduced rank. That could cost Sinclair hundreds of thousands of dollars in pension benefits.
Retired Maj. Gen. Walt Huffman, a Texas Tech University law professor who previously served as the Army's top lawyer, said Sinclair could be busted back two ranks to lieutenant colonel because the affair at the heart of the case began before his most recent promotion.
Huffman also said it's possible the judge could sentence Sinclair to a punishment lower than what's called for in the plea agreement.
"If the judge determines he was a good soldier who served his country well other than his inability to control his zipper, then the judge might cut him a break," Huffman said. "But either way, his career in the Army is going to be over."
Prosecutors didn't comment on the deal or the case before Monday's hearing.
Defense attorney Richard Scheff said Monday that Sinclair is admitting to his mistakes, but added that the general is pleading guilty to behavior that likely wouldn't be criminal in the civilian world. He said he expects Sinclair to "to retire at a reduced rank and go home to his family."
"We're thrilled about it, and that's where this case should have been at the outset," Scheff said outside of the Fort Bragg courtroom. "These charges should have never been brought, so it's a big circle, but justice will be done."
Scheff said he understands that the military needs to take a harder line against sexual assault but that there must be a balance. "It doesn't mean every complaint that's brought should go forward," he said.
The Army's case against Sinclair started to crumble as questions arose about whether the captain had lied in a January pre-trial hearing. It was further thrown into jeopardy last week when Pohl said the military may have improperly pressed ahead with the trial to send a message about its determination to curb rape and other widespread misconduct. Under the military code of justice, the decision was supposed to be decided solely on the evidence, not its broader political implications.
"Many of the decisions in this case have been driven by politics," Scheff said. "We've raised that time and time again. The judge finally agreed with us last week. I think that was a major break for us, as well as the main accuser not telling the truth on the 7th of January."
Capt. Cassie L. Fowler, the military lawyer assigned to represent the accuser's interests, didn't respond to a message seeking comment Sunday.
In a December letter, Fowler had argued to prosecutors that dismissing the sexual assault charges against Sinclair would not only harm her client, but would set back the military's broader fight to combat sexual assault.