General Takes Plea Deal In Sexual Assault Case

An Army general accused of sexually assaulting a subordinate has pleaded guilty to lesser charges. The case against him collapsed under doubts about the accuser's credibility.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Today, a plea deal in the most closely watched sexual assault case in the military. An Army general admitted to charges of mistreating a subordinate and adultery. But Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair will not face more serious charges. That's because the Army's case against him fell apart. We're going to hear more about what happened now from NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello, Robert.

SIEGEL: The case against Gen. Sinclair has become almost a symbol of the problem of sexual assault in the military. What happened to the Army's case; why did it fall apart?

BOWMAN: Well, Robert, two reasons. First of all, the credibility of the witness - this was a big problem. She was an Army captain, an Arab linguist who had a consensual relationship with Gen. Sinclair that lasted three years, including overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. And there was evidence in her diaries and emails that this was a consensual relationship. Now, the relationship soured, and she said the general forced her to perform sex acts and threatened her family if she told authorities about the affair.

SIEGEL: And just to be clear, for Gen. Sinclair to have been involved in a consensual relationship, that still would have been a violation.

BOWMAN: Right. It's a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Adultery is illegal. So even a consensual relationship would have been illegal.

SIEGEL: OK. What was the other reason for the case falling apart?

BOWMAN: Well, it's something peculiar to the military. It's called unlawful command influence. And what happened in this case was the accuser had a victim's advocate. And she thought that if you allow Gen. Sinclair to plea to lesser charges, it would send the wrong message politically. And basically, the general who was in charge of this case said OK, we're not going to let him plead. We'll just continue prosecuting this case. Now, we've learned that the judge in the case said that was wrong and raised a question, of course, of undue command influence; that the decision to prosecute has to be made on evidence, and not on politics.

SIEGEL: But this was a politically important case.

BOWMAN: Yes, very important because of a number of things going on over the past couple of years. First of all, the Pentagon found reports of unwanted sexual contact in the military have gone up 37 percent in the last couple of years. The military would say listen, a lot of that is because women feel comfortable about coming forward; everything from being groped to actually rape in that - in those cases. Then you had the case of an Air Force general in Europe throwing out the jury conviction of a junior officer on sexual assault charges and that, in turn, got Congress involved. You have Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, of New York, trying to take away the prosecution of these kinds of cases from the military chain of command, move it to an independent prosecutor. That legislation was just defeated but by a small number of votes. There was a lot of support for that.

So in that context now, you have the Gen. Sinclair case, and if you look at some of the specifics of the case, it was pretty notorious. It was a case that appeared strong. Here he was, married. He had relations with several other women besides the accuser. He had pornography. And all of these things he admitted to in court.

SIEGEL: Under the plea deal, what kind of sentence does he face?

BOWMAN: Well, he could have faced up to 25 years in prison. But, of course, it will be less than that. The plea deal capped the level of punishment, so he could still see some jail time. But in a minimum, he'll be reduced in rank, fined, and kicked out of the Army. He could even be reduced to as low as a lieutenant colonel.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Robert.

SIEGEL: It's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

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