Political News

Bragg general's trial a mix of sex, lies, power

Posted March 7, 2014 10:02 a.m. EST
Updated March 7, 2014 5:34 p.m. EST

— With the Pentagon under increased scrutiny over revelations of rampant rape and sexual misconduct within the ranks, a rare court-martial of an Army general – believed to be the most senior member of the U.S. military to face trial on sex assault charges, began Friday at Fort Bragg.

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, 51, a former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, is accused of sexually assaulting a captain under his command with whom he had a three-year affair. He pleaded guilty Thursday to adultery, which is a crime in the military, and to asking two other junior officers and a civilian woman to send him nude photos of themselves.

In his opening statement, Lt. Col. Robert Stelle, the lead prosecutor in the case, described aspects of the affair in graphic detail for the panel of generals determining Sinclair's fate. The captain and Sinclair had sex on a hotel balcony and in a car in a public parking lot, among other places, and he twice forced her to perform oral sex.

The captain, who was the first witness called, tearfully told jurors how a professional relationship with Sinclair in 2008 evolved into a nightmarish, adulterous relationship that she couldn't escape.

Stelle called the affair a case of power, rank and command authority, noting that Sinclair used his position to threaten the captain to keep their relationship secret and to stop her from breaking it off,

"If you ever tell anyone about this, I'll kill you and everyone in your family in a way that no one will ever know," Stelle said Sinclair told his mistress.

On another occasion, he reportedly told her, "You belong to me."

Prosecutors plan to ask the captain to take the stand later Friday.

Defense attorney Ellen Brotman said jurors don't have to hear from the captain directly because a journal she kept during the affair shows that it was a consensual relationship and that she never feared for her career or her safety.

Brotman read excepts of the journal during her opening statement, with early entries sounding like a love-struck teen and later ones describing the ups and downs of an on-again, off-again affair.

"My biggest fear is that there is something still there in his marriage," read one of the later entries.

"The documents show – all her words show – that she was in love with him," Brotman said outside of the courtroom. "When she's angry with him, it's because she's jealous about his marriage, and when she's unhappy, it's because she thinks the relationship isn't going where she wants it to go."

The captain disclosed the affair only after finding emails to Sinclair from another woman in early 2012, Brotman said, and she made up a story about being coerced into the relationship to avoid being charged herself with adultery.

Sinclair's guilty pleas to adultery, possession of pornography while deployed in Afghanistan and conduct unbecoming an officer narrow the scope of his court-martial, and defense attorneys say it strengthens their case at trial.

Prosecutors might not be able to use some of the salacious evidence against Sinclair, and more weight will be given to the captain's testimony and credibility as the jury weighs the more serious charges against the general.

Defense attorney Richard Scheff called the captain a liar and a perjurer on Friday. "LTC Stelle read you fiction. We showed you fact," Scheff said in a statement.

Sinclair's defense contends that the captain perjured herself in a January pre-trial hearing and that the former prosecutor was so torn up over it and its impact on the government's case that he withdrew from the trial on moral reasons.

Defense lawyers have portrayed Sinclair as the victim of an overzealous military under intense political pressure to halt sexual misconduct in the ranks that it intends to make an example of him.

Sinclair faces up to 15 years in military prison on the charges he pleaded guilty to, but if convicted of sexual assault, he could receive a life sentence.