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How does Gen. Sinclair court martial affect debate on military sexual assault policy?

March 20, 2014 at 6:35 PM EST
Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, the highest ranking U.S. military officer ever court martialed for sexual assault, pleaded guilty on charges of sexual misconduct and was fined $20,000, but will serve no jail time. Judy Woodruff gets details from Paul Woolverton of The Fayetteville Observer about the trial and the decision to pursue a plea deal.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A military judged ruled today that Army Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair will serve no jail time. Sinclair is believed to be the highest ranking U.S. military officer ever court-martialed on sexual assault charges.

Those charges were dropped after the prosecution’s case fell apart and the general pled guilty to having inappropriate relationships with three subordinates.

Reporter Paul Woolverton has been covering the case for The Fayetteville Observer in North Carolina. And he joins us now.

So, Paul Woolverton, welcome.

This case started out as something very different from what it ended up. Remind us what the original case looked like.

PAUL WOOLVERTON, The Fayetteville Observer: Originally, it was a sexual assault case.

The general was accused of forcing his accuser, a captain under his command, of giving him oral sex at times when she didn’t want to, and this was in the war zone in Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what happened to that case over time?

PAUL WOOLVERTON: Well, the general fought it very hard, and his legal team fought very hard. And they pushed and pushed to get the sexual assault charges dismissed, on the allegation that the accuser — basically, they said she was lying.

And the prosecutors, of course, kept at it over time. But, in the end, they arranged to plea-bargain, and the sexual assault charges were dismissed, but that still left numerous other charges, including adultery and misconduct and maltreatment of the accuser.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Explain what happened to the prosecution’s case, because, as you point out, there were some very serious charges leveled originally against General Sinclair.

But then, as the case — as time went by, as you said, it became clear that some of what the accuser was saying wasn’t borne out.

PAUL WOOLVERTON: Well, the accuser stands by her position that the sexual assault took place. The question, I think, was whether it could be proved in court.

The — I guess late last year, they were still negotiating to try to get to a plea. And the accuser was opposed to the plea. But then the commanding — the convening authority, the general in charge of saying we’re going to have a court-martial, he said, we’re not going to do a plea deal.

So there was a letter from a lawyer representing the accuser that said, A., she opposes a plea deal, but also that brought in the specter of Congress changing laws regarding how the military treats sexual assault, and that if they drop this case against General Sinclair, it would force Congress or lead Congress to punish the Army politically by taking power away from the courts-martial.

So, that became an indication of what they call unlawful command influence over decisions on how to proceed with the case within the military. They can’t have outside influences such as that decide justice, and that led the — basically, that led up to having the plea bargain take place in the end.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But — so, essentially, what you’re saying is that it looked as if there had been political considerations, and that took a case that was already on shaky ground and — and weakened it even further.

PAUL WOOLVERTON: Exactly, yes.

Whether it was on shaky ground, the defense and prosecution would dispute that. There were discussions, I think, within prosecution circles to take the deal, but the higher-ups didn’t want to take the deal.

So, going in, the defense was very optimistic that they would win if the jury heard all the evidence of sexual assault, but, you know, in the end, they took the plea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The accuser, of course, hasn’t been identified publicly.

Was there a consensus about — in court about the strength of her accusations and the strength of the general’s defense?

PAUL WOOLVERTON: Well, I saw her testify in court.

And she was very persuasive and very emotional about how he assaulted her and how it affected her life. You know, the relationship started consensual back in 2009. But then, over time, she said she wanted to leave him and felt she couldn’t because of — he was her boss. He could damage her military career.

And she also claimed that he had threatened to kill her and her family if she exposed their relationship. But the defense countered that her private e-mails and journals and other such materials and messages show that she wasn’t so, I guess, wanting to leave him, that more so that she — that they contend that she wanted him to leave his wife and marry her.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, when — when — the end of it, when this finally came down to the judge deciding on whether — what he was guilty of, which was much less than what was originally charged, and the penalty, what was the reaction in the courtroom and in the community?

PAUL WOOLVERTON: In the community, I think a lot of people were surprised. He’s not getting any active prison time. The plea bargain allowed for as much as 18 months of incarceration. And, in the end, the judge didn’t do that.

He’s going to be reprimanded. He will be allowed to retire. And when he retires, he will probably be demoted down to lieutenant colonel, which will affect his retirement. He also has — he also to pay a $20,000 fine and pay $4,100 in restitution for some travel expenses he accrued visiting his accuser when they were still having their relationship.

But I talked to several people who thought that he would get active time. And even the defense team said that they were stunned at the sentencing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, and, as you point out, all this is taking place during a time when there’s a lot of not only discussion about the extent — or the amount of sexual — at least accusations of sexual assault in the military, the debate right here in Washington about whether these kinds of charges should be taken out of the chain of command.

Would you say that — I mean, you have been talking to a lot of folks in the military. Are they coming away from this case saying this argues for that, or not?

PAUL WOOLVERTON: People who I talk to over time in — within military legal circles, generally, a lot of them are opposed to taking command authority away from the generals and other commanders in terms of deciding who gets court-martialed and whether to overturn a conviction, should a jury convict somebody.

But there’s a lot of pressure from the outside in some other areas of the legal community that say other countries do it differently, that they have independent prosecutors. The — it’s interesting that the lead defense lawyer for General Sinclair favors the bill that would remove command authority from deciding courts-martial.

Whether it happens now, I imagine this will provide some fodder as Congress goes forward to decide whether to take that authority away.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Paul Woolverton with The Fayetteville, North Carolina, Observer, we thank you very much.

PAUL WOOLVERTON: Thank you.