US general's dramatic court martial weighs heavy on Senate's military sex abuse bill

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 March, 2014, 10:34am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 March, 2014, 10:34am

The results of the military trial of a US general who was involved in a sex scandal with a junior officer could shape the high-stakes debate in Congress, which will consider a bill that would remove military commanders’ authority to prosecute sexual assault and other crimes, according to The Washington Post.

Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair, a married paratrooper and former chief of the 82nd Airborne Division, is under court martial for allegedly having a long-term affair with a female army captain – who is 17 years his junior – and sexually assaulting her twice.

There undeniably remain reasonable grounds to believe that the accused committed sexual assault offences
Robert Stelle, army lead prosecutor

The junior officer has testified that Sinclair, on two occasions in Afghanistan, forced her to perform oral sex against her will, among other charges.

He is only the third Army general to face court-martial in more than a half-century, the report said on Tuesday.

The trial, which comes after two years of preparation and investigation by the prosecution and defence, will take place this week at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and is seen as a test case for the army’s willingness to hold senior leaders accountable for sex crimes, the Post said.

Sinclair has admitted to the affair but pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The US Senate has tabled a bill, introduced by Democratic lawmaker Kirsten Gillibrand, which would give uniformed prosecutors – not commanders in charge of their units – the power to decide whether to press charges, amid concerns that military commanders have failed to stop and police sex abuse in the military.

This would represent the biggest change to military law in decades, prompting some resistance in the Pentagon.

However, the prosecution mounting a case against Sinclair has suffered several roadblocks, including the abrupt resignation of lead counsel Lieutenant Colonel William Helixon, who said he had qualms about the case, the Post said.

Richard Scheff, the lawyer representing Sinclair, claimed in court filings that Helixon bluntly told him in a February 9 telephone conversation that he had come to the conclusion that the sexual assault charges against the general should be dropped, but senior army leaders had insisted the case go forward because of “politics and outside pressures”. Others say it stems from the fear of being seen as covering up the sex abuse case, the report said.

“Was I stunned? Yes, in bold, large font,” Scheff was quoted by the newspaper as saying. “He wanted to do the right thing. He’s got strong ethics and a strong moral compass.”

In a recent court filing, the army said Helixon told superiors he thought the sexual assault charges against Sinclair should be dismissed for “tactical” reasons because they would be difficult to win at trial.

Sinclair’s lover turned accuser, meanwhile, is facing questions about her credibility, as she has given conflicting accounts of the sex abuse to investigators and colleagues, and being found in possession of an iPhone containing messages between her and Sinclair that were dated even during the two-year trial preparation period.

She testified that she found the phone in her apartment and that it had not been switched on for years – although forensic evidence showed some of the messages were sent late last year.

Despite Helixon casting doubt on the case and Scheff arguing that the charges are flimsy, the new army prosecutor, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Stelle, said in a court filing: “There undeniably remain reasonable grounds to believe that the accused committed sexual assault offences.”