By Richard A. Oppel Jr. for The New York Times on March 16, 2014—
“The senior Army officer prosecuted in the military’s most closely watched sexual assault case, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, has agreed to plead guilty to sharply reduced charges, including that he disobeyed a commander’s order, misused his government charge card and mistreated his former mistress, a captain.
In exchange for those pleas, prosecutors will dismiss far more serious charges against General Sinclair, including that he twice forced the captain into oral sex and threatened to kill her and her family.
General Sinclair is expected to enter the pleas, outlined in a document endorsed by both sides and distributed by the defense team, in military court at Fort Bragg, N.C., as soon as Monday morning. Once his sentence is decided, possibly later this week, the problem-fraught two-year case will finally draw to a close.
The deal caps the surprisingly rapid and, for the military, embarrassing collapse of what once seemed a powerful case — an unraveling that began after Army prosecutors concluded that their chief witness, the captain, who had been the general’s lover for three years, may have lied under oath at a pretrial hearing in January.
But the guilty pleas will end the decorated 27-year career of General Sinclair, once a fast-rising star. The general, who could have faced life in prison if convicted on the sexual assault charges, will almost certainly receive a far lighter sentence, but will be required to leave the military.
The deal could still set up a showdown. Defense lawyers said military prosecutors might 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 judge to impose tougher punishment on General 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 General Sinclair and forced oral sex, but she was not cross-examined because the court-martial was postponed.
General Sinclair, 51 and married with two children, was deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division and of American 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 commander or higher.
His punishment will not be determined until the sentencing hearing ends. Prosecutors are expected to argue for prison time, while the defense 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.
Defense lawyers said they and the prosecutors had also agreed to what is known as a quantum, which will serve as a cap on the amount of prison time General Sinclair may face. The judge will not know what that cap is until after he determines his own sentence. The lesser of the two — the judge’s sentence or the cap — will be the punishment imposed on the general, whose lawyers declined to describe the quantum in any way.
Had prosecutors proceeded with the more serious charges, which also included that General Sinclair performed consensual but “open and notorious sexual acts” with the captain in a parked car in Germany and on a hotel balcony in Tucson, he could have faced life in prison and permanent registration as a sex offender if convicted.
Defense lawyers say General Sinclair is willing to retire as a lieutenant colonel — two rungs below his current rank, and the last rank that he served during which he is not accused of any illegal acts — which would probably cost him more than $1 million in total retirement pay.
Though his former lover’s problematic testimony 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.
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 General Sinclair despite qualms in an effort to show new resolve against sexual misconduct.
The new guilty pleas General Sinclair is expected to enter on Monday are in addition to guilty pleas he entered earlier this month, which remain in force. Those charges include adultery, requesting explicit photographs from female Army officers, possessing pornography in a combat theater and seeking a date with a lieutenant.
The one new guilty plea that may have 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.
In that portion of the plea document, General 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, Lt. Col. Robert C. Stelle, declined to comment Sunday evening.
In an interview, Richard L. Scheff, the lead defense lawyer, said the plea deal would allow General 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 General Sinclair to be a registered sex offender,” he said.”
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