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Army general to plead guilty to lesser charges in sexual abuse case

Crime, Law and JusticeSexual AssaultCrimeJeffrey A. SinclairSexual MisconductU.S. ArmyJustice System

DURHAM, N.C. -- Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair will plead guilty to lesser charges in a deal with Army prosecutors, who have agreed to drop charges that he twice sexually assaulted an Army captain by forcing her to perform oral sex, threatened to kill her and her parents and engaged in "open and notorious" sex in a parked car and on a hotel balcony.

The plea deal would end a flawed prosecution in a high-profile military sexual abuse case that came to an abrupt halt last week, when a military judge ruled that improper political considerations may have tainted the Army’s decision to reject an earlier plea offer. The Army's handling of the case has been under intense political and public scrutiny as the military struggles to cope with a surge of sexual assault claims.

Sinclair, 51, is expected to formally enter his plea Monday morning.

Under the deal, outlined in a signed plea agreement released by Sinclair's lawyers on Sunday, the general will plead guilty to maltreating the captain in an "unwarranted" manner that could have caused "her mental harm and suffering." Sinclair will also plead guilty to using derogatory and demeaning language toward female staff officers -- and cursing when confronted about it -- as well as disobeying an order to stay away from the captain.

In exchange, the Army will dismiss charges that Sinclair groped and fondled the captain against her will on a military flight. The Army on March 6 dropped a charge that Sinclair pressured another captain to send him nude photos of herself.

The Army will also drop fraud charges in connection with a government charge card that Sinclair used to pay for trips in which he secretly met the captain for sexual trysts. Sinclair will plead guilty to a lesser charge of misusing the charge card.

Sinclair pleaded guilty March 6 to adultery for conducting a three-year, consensual affair that stretched across three continents. He also pleaded guilty to impeding an investigation by deleting sexually explicit emails to and from a civilian woman; possessing pornography in a war zone; conducting inappropriate relationships with two other female officers; and improperly asking a female lieutenant for a date.

The plea agreement was signed Saturday and approved by Maj. Gen. Clarence K.K. Chinn, the Ft. Bragg, N.C., commander. Last Tuesday, a military judge, Col.  Judge James L. Pohl, put Sinclair's court-martial on hold to allow the defense and prosecution to negotiate a possible plea deal.

Pohl scolded prosecutors for failing to turn over key evidence until after the court-martial had already begun, and offered Sinclair's lawyers an opportunity to request a mistrial. They declined, but not before accusing the Army of stonewalling defense requests for incriminating emails between top Army lawyers and commanders that suggested political interference.

The fact that the deal was reached so quickly suggests that the Army was embarrassed by Pohl's rulings and eager to find a face-saving way to avoid a protracted court-martial in which the most serious charges relied almost solely on the captain's testimony.

At a sentencing hearing scheduled for this week at Ft. Bragg, the general’s lawyers will attempt to keep Sinclair out of jail and seek a sentence that would allow him to retire at a reduced rank. In court motions, the defense has pointed out that senior officers in other sexual misconduct cases have avoided prison and retired at reduced rank.

Sinclair was charged with offenses committed while serving as a colonel and one-star general; his lawyers will likely offer to have him retire as a lieutenant colonel, which would greatly reduce his retirement pay.

The Army is expected to seek prison time and loss of benefits.  If convicted on the original sexual assault, sodomy and death threat charges, Sinclair would have faced life in prison.

Pohl will sentence Sinclair after the hearing. According to the defense team, prosecutors agreed in a separate deal to a cap, or maximum, on any sentence the judge might impose. That so-called "quantum" agreement is confidential, and not even the judge will see it before sentencing.

A Ft. Bragg spokeswoman said Sunday night that the prosecution "intends to allow the outcome to be announced in the courtroom." The lead Army prosecutor, Lt. Col. Robert Stelle, said Sunday that under rules of professional responsibility, he is not permitted to comment.

The Army's witness list for the sentencing hearing includes the captain and her parents, who live in Nebraska. Testimony by the captain would allow the defense to cross-examine her.

In nearly five hours of often tearful testimony March 7, the captain said Sinclair forced her to perform oral sex in a military office in Afghanistan when she tried to break off the affair. She also accused him of threatening to kill her and her family if she divulged the affair, and of groping and fondling her against her will in front of other soldiers. The accuser, now 34, was 29 when the affair began.

She was not cross-examined because the case was abruptly halted March 10 by the judge, who said he had found evidence of "unlawful command influence" by the Army. Pohl ruled that a two-star general who rejected Sinclair’s earlier plea was subjected to political influence after he read a letter by the captain's special victim's advocate. That letter referred to possible political ramifications if the plea was accepted.

There were other serious problems with the Army’s case -- all related to testimony by the accuser herself.  Forensic experts concluded that the captain lied in a pretrial hearing in January about an old cellphone containing messages to and from Sinclair.

The lead Army prosecutor in the case quit last month after failing to persuade the Army to accept an offer by Sinclair to plead to lesser charges and retire at reduced rank. The lead defense lawyer said the prosecutor told him the accuser had lied on the stand and to him. The Army maintained that, despite inconsistencies in the accuser's cellphone testimony, she was telling the truth about the sexual assault.

In opening statements, the defense said it planned to confront the captain with her own journal entries and emails, in which she professed her undying love for Sinclair and pursued him at one point when their relationship soured. The defense says the journal and emails show that the captain continued to share adoring, sexually explicit emails with Sinclair and have sex with him after he allegedly threatened her and groped her on the military flight.

The defense has accused the captain of concocting the sexual assault and death threat allegations in a jealous rage after she discovered amorous emails to Sinclair from another woman, also an Army officer.

The maltreatment charge was pivotal in hammering out the agreement, according to a member of the defense team.

The original charge accused Sinclair, a 27-year decorated veteran who is married with two children, of using his rank and authority to "coerce and compel" the captain to continue the affair.  In negotiations, prosecutors insisted on some sort of maltreatment charge and considered it a deal-breaker, a member of the defense team said Sunday.

The two sides hammered out a revised charge in which the general pleaded guilty to a lesser offense. Sinclair admitted that he treated the captain, "a person subject to his orders," 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."

At his sentencing hearing, the defense team said, Sinclair will tell the judge that he caused the captain emotional distress by failing to divorce his wife, despite suggesting to her that he would.

Sinclair's lead attorney, Richard L. Scheff, a civilian lawyer from Philadelphia, said Sunday that the Army has been driven by politics, not justice, during the two years it prosecuted the general.

"After wasting millions of taxpayer dollars, the Army finally admitted what it's known for many months: Gen. Sinclair is innocent of sexual assault," Scheff said in a statement. "BG Sinclair has admitted to mistakes that are normally a matter between husbands and wives, or employees and HR departments. It’s time to put this matter to rest."

[For the record, 9:03 p.m. PDT March 16: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said Judge Pohl scolded the defense for failing to turn over key evidence. It was the prosecutors he had scolded.]

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david.zucchino@latimes.com

Twitter: @davidzucchino

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Crime, Law and JusticeSexual AssaultCrimeJeffrey A. SinclairSexual MisconductU.S. ArmyJustice System
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