U.S. Army general Jeffrey Sinclair pleads guilty on lesser charges
Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, right, leaves the courthouse with his lawyers Richard Scheff, left, and Ellen C. Brotman, not pictured, following a day of motions at Fort Bragg, N.C., March 4, 2014. (The Fayetteville Observer, James Robinson)
Michael Biesecker and Jeffrey Collins, The Associated Press
Published Monday, March 17, 2014 9:01AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, March 17, 2014 11:12AM EDT
FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- An Army 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 at Fort Bragg caps the high-profile prosecution of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair. It 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 -- was expected to begin after a two-hour recess.
Sinclair pleaded to the lesser charges in exchange for the Army dropping sexual assault charges and two other counts that might have required him to register as a sex offender. A military judge accepted his guilty pleas.
Sinclair, 51, had been accused of twice forcing a female captain under his command to perform oral sex during a three-year extramarital affair. The Associated Press does not generally identify alleged victims of sexual assault.
Defence attorney Richard Scheff said Monday that Sinclair is admitting to his mistakes, but added that the general is pleading guilty to behaviour that likely wouldn't be criminal in the civilian world.
Scheff said he expected Sinclair to "to retire at a reduced rank and go home to his family." 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."
The Army's case against Sinclair started to crumble as questions arose about whether his primary accuser had lied in a pre-trial hearing. It was further thrown into jeopardy last week when Judge Col. James 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.
Ultimately, the judge will give Sinclair a sentence that can't exceed terms in the agreement struck between defence lawyers and military attorneys. The legal agreement is likely to require a punishment far less severe than the maximum penalties 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.
Sinclair's new plea agreement was approved and signed over the weekend by a high-ranking general overseeing the case, according to a copy provided by the defence team.
The married 27-year Army veteran pleaded guilty earlier this month to having improper relationships with three subordinate officers, including the female captain who accused him of assault. He also pleaded guilty to adultery, which is a crime in the military.
Under the plea deal reached over the weekend, Sinclair also admits to abusing a government credit card he used while travelling to visit his mistress.
Prosecutors did not comment on the deal or the case before Monday's hearing.