FT. BRAGG, N.C. — In a light sentence that stunned even his lawyers, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair was sentenced to a reprimand and no jail time for mistreating a subordinate with whom he had a three-year adulterous affair, ending a tumultuous court-martial that focused national attention on the military's uneven response to sexual misconduct in the ranks.
A military judge, Col. James L. Pohl, also ordered Sinclair, 51, to forfeit $5,000 of pay per month for four months and pay restitution of $4,156 for misusing his government charge card. Sinclair will be allowed to retire and receive a pension and other benefits, his rank to be determined by a military retirement board.
The one-star general grinned and hugged defense attorney Ellen Brotman, who was seated next to him, then stood and bear-hugged fellow officers who had testified on his behalf.
"The system worked -- I've always been proud of my Army," Sinclair told reporters outside the courthouse, wearing a dress blue uniform and a crimson beret. "All I want to do now ... is hug my kids and see my wife."
The punishment closes a deeply flawed case that embarrassed
"Today's sentencing is beyond disappointing -- it is a travesty and a serious misstep for the Army," said retired Rear Adm. Jamie Barnett, a lawyer who is an unpaid advisor for the accuser.
Barnett said the captain told him that the sentence "doesn't take away any of the pain and anguish that she has endured." He said the captain still says Sinclair forced her to perform oral sex, adding that "she had her day in court to speak the truth about the horrible things he did."
Barnett said the accuser's "courage and devotion seeking to ensure that this trauma does not happen to others is truly magnificent."
Minutes after the judge's sentence, Sinclair called his wife, Rebecca, who has stood by him despite his adultery and who asked the judge in a statement read in court Wednesday not to punish her and the couple's two boys, 10 and 12, with a harsh sentence.
[Update, 12:25 p.m. PDT March 20: A member of the defense team spoke with the general's wife after the sentecning hearing ended and said she was "very happy and equally relieved."]
The 27-year veteran of five combat tours had faced life in prison if convicted on original charges -- dismissed this month as the case faltered -- of sexual assault, sodomy and threatening to kill his lover, who reported to him. After entering guilty pleas, he faced up to 25 1/2 years in prison, although prosecutors agreed to a cap of 18 months.
"This restores our faith in the system," Richard L. Scheff, Sinclair's lead attorney, told reporters. "Someone who's neutral and objective looked at the evidence and did the right thing."
Scheff said the general hoped to appear as soon as possible – perhaps Thursday – before the ranking commander at Ft. Bragg, Maj. Gen. Clarence K.K. Chinn, to be reprimanded in person. Then he intended to drive to his home state of West Virginia, where he and his wife have bought a house.
Army prosecutors did not comment. A Ft. Bragg spokeswoman, Maj. Crystal Boring, said military officials had no immediate comment.
The defense, which aggressively attacked the Army's case and forced a favorable plea deal, was nonetheless so concerned that Sinclair would get jail time that it brought a black overcoat to shield handcuffs if he had been taken into custody.
After Pohl read the sentence, the defense team waited, poised for more penalties, lawyers said later. But when the judge abruptly adjourned, Scheff turned to his colleagues and said, "Wow!" He hugged Maj. Sean Foster, who delivered the defense closing arguments Wednesday and told him, "You are the man."
Sinclair was jubilant, hugging his lawyers and supporters, grinning broadly. He joked with military police handling courthouse security and thanked them for the way they had treated him during the court-marital. "It's been a very difficult time for me and my family," he said minutes later.
The sentence allows Sinclair to remain in the Army, where he has been assigned to Ft. Bragg since he was removed in 2012 as deputy commander of U.S. forces in southern Afghanistan. Scheff said the general intends to retire.
If the board allows him to retire at lieutenant colonel -- the last rank he served honorably -- he would lose an estimated $831,000 in benefits he would have received until age 82 as a one-star general. His current salary is about $12,000 a month, according to his lawyers.
Maj. Gen. Chinn must sign off on the sentence. He can lower the penalty but cannot increase it.
Under the plea agreement, the Army agreed to dismiss charges that Sinclair had threatened to kill his accuser and her family if she exposed the affair, had forced her to perform oral sex and had engaged in "open and notorious" sex in a parked car and on a hotel balcony. If convicted on the most serious charges, Sinclair would have had to register as a sex offender.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said the sentence underscored the need for legislation she has proposed that would strip commanders of authority to decide on sexual assault charges.
"This case has illustrated a military justice system in dire need for independence from the chain of command," Gillibrand said in a statement. "It's not only the right thing to do for our men and women in uniform, but would also mitigate issues of undue command influence."
The case was troubled from the start. The Army lodged sexual assault charges that defense lawyers said were excessive. The defense characterized Sinclair's conduct as little more than a messy, if adulterous, workplace romance. It accused the Army of trumping up charges to show that it was cracking down on sexual misconduct by top commanders.
Advocates for women in the military said no sexual relationship between a junior officer and senior commander can be consensual, given the commander's unquestioned authority. The Army originally said Sinclair had abused his authority to pressure the captain into continuing — and keeping silent about — the illicit affair.
Adultery is a crime in the Army. Sinclair's accuser testified under a grant of immunity.
The court-martial was abruptly halted last week when Pohl ruled that a three-star general who rejected Sinclair's original plea offer may have been influenced by political considerations — known as "unlawful command influence." Pohl also chastised prosecutors for failing to turn over incriminating emails between top Army lawyers and commanders until after the court-martial had begun.
Once the emails came to light, Pohl gave Sinclair another chance at a plea deal. That paved the way for the Army to find a face-saving way out of a compromised case that had begun unraveling with the accuser's troublesome testimony at a Jan. 7 preliminary hearing.
Forensic experts concluded that she lied about an old cellphone she said she had found long after evidence was supposed to have been turned over. The phone contained text messages to and from Sinclair.
On Wednesday, Scheff said that the lead Army prosecutor, Lt. Col. Robert Stelle, told him this week that sexual assault charges should never have been brought. But Ft. Bragg spokeswoman Boring said Scheff had mischaracterized Stelle's comments. She said Stelle told Scheff only that the plea agreement was "a good and fair result."
Stelle's predecessor, Lt. Col. William Helixon, quit the case in February. According to the defense, Helixon tried to persuade Army officials to drop sexual assault charges, saying the accuser was untrustworthy and had misled him.
Prosecutors conceded that Helixon had "tactical" doubts about proving the sexual assault charges but said he still believed the captain was telling the truth about forced oral sex.
Sinclair, one of only a few generals to face court-martial in the last 60 years, pleaded guilty Monday to mistreating the captain. He also pleaded guilty to twice misusing his government charge card to pursue the affair, disobeying an order not to contact his mistress and making sexist comments about other female officers.
A week earlier Sinclair had pleaded guilty to adultery, 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 defense portrayed the accuser as an ambitious officer who had sex with a dynamic general, only to react in rage after discovering amorous messages to Sinclair from another female officer and after realizing the general would not divorce his wife. Defense lawyers contended that the captain pursued Sinclair as he tried to find a way to get out of the relationship without anyone finding out.
Before she reported the affair and assault allegations to a two-star general in Afghanistan, the captain told a chief warrant officer of the affair. The officer testified in a preliminary hearing that the captain did not mention to him that she had been sexually assaulted or threatened with death by Sinclair.
The Army depicted Sinclair as a sexual predator who took advantage of impressionable junior officers who came to him for mentoring. They said he callously mistreated and lied to the accuser, spoke of military women with contempt, and brought dishonor and disruption to the Army.
Sinclair wept more than once when he told Pohl on Wednesday that he had dishonored the Army officer corps and his own once-promising career. He apologized to his former lover and to the three other officers.
"It was my responsibility to ensure that these officers were protected and promoted, and I failed them as a leader," he said in a voice choked with emotion.
He apologized as well to his wife and two sons for the pain and embarrassment his behavior had caused them. Rebecca Sinclair was not in court but told the judge in her statement that she and her sons were the "only truly innocent victims" in the case.
The general described "a deep and abiding sense of shame and remorse." He confessed that he had lied to his lover about leaving his wife for fear that she would expose the affair. He said his behavior had caused his accuser "emotional harm and suffering."
Prosecutors said Sinclair had shamed himself and the officer corps. On Wednesday, Maj. Rebecca DiMuro, a special-victim prosecutor, told the judge, "Gen. Sinclair let the Army down."