Army Staff Sgt. Delmar G. Simpson was sentenced Tuesday to 25 years in prison for raping six female trainees, touching off a storm of complaints from women's advocates that the sentence was too lenient, and from black leaders that it was racially tainted and far too harsh.
Simpson, 32, whose case was the most serious in the Army's sex harassment scandal, was sentenced for his conviction on 18 rape counts and 34 other offenses, most of them related to sexual misconduct. The sergeant, a 12-year veteran who was found to have coerced sex from trainees at Maryland's Aberdeen Proving Ground, could be eligible for parole in eight years.
The sentence "sends a message to women in the military that the talk of zero tolerance is just talk--that there's a great tolerance in the military for sexual misconduct," said Karen Johnson, a former Air Force colonel and a vice president of the National Organization for Women.
While Simpson could have been sentenced to life in prison for each rape count, she noted, the sentence he received amounts to 15 months for each count. He was also subject to 32 years in prison for the 11 counts of consensual sex to which he pleaded guilty, she said, declaring that Simpson "would have gotten far more from a civilian court."
"This doesn't seem to be terribly severe," agreed Georgia Sadler, a retired Navy captain and founder of Women in the Military Information Network.
From another corner, though, Simpson's defense team and black leaders contended that the sentence showed the Army had railroaded 11 black sergeants and a black captain in its over-eagerness to respond to the complaints of women.
"This is cruel and unusual punishment," said Rep. Earl F. Hilliard (D-Ala.), first vice chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. "This is going to have a chilling effect on all those people who are still to be tried and on people who are going to enter the service and on the state of race relations in America."
Simpson's attorneys, who for the most part had played down the racial angle in the trial, joined in. Frank J. Spinner warned that the message of the sentence was "if you're black, and an African American drill sergeant in the Army, you're an endangered species."
In eight days of testimony, the defense contended that the sexual encounters were all consensual. Simpson's attorneys maintained that the women were falsely testifying against Simpson to hide their own guilt--since sex between different ranks is against Army rules--or in hopes of gaining other advantage.
The jury, which convicted Simpson one week ago, took about two hours Tuesday to return its sentence. Simpson, who apologized in a pre-sentencing hearing for his failure to follow the "moral values [he] learned in childhood," hugged his mother and left the courtroom with his wife after the sentence was read.
Simpson will also be discharged from the Army at a rank of private E-1.
The complaints about the sentence reflected the powerful political currents that have whipsawed the Aberdeen cases since they came to light last fall. Women's groups have vowed to closely follow the Army's prosecutions in hopes of ensuring justice for the victims. Black leaders have protested the prosecution since it came to light that all 12 men who faced charges are black.
Despite the complaints, several legal experts said that Simpson's sentence was probably not out of line with civilian sentences. They said that the court-martial jurors may have accepted defense arguments that the women shared at least some guilt for what happened. They may also have given Simpson some leeway because there were uncertainties about what really happened in crimes where there were no witnesses, the experts said.
In addition, jurors may have given Simpson some credit for his record as a decorated soldier.
"Considering all the circumstances, this is not out of line with what he would have gotten in the [ordinary] run of state cases," said Paul Rothstein, a law professor at Georgetown University.
In civilian courts, rape penalties usually run from several years in jail to a life term, depending on several circumstances, including the amount of force that was used. Serial rapists typically are sentenced to between 25 years and life imprisonment, Rothstein said.
Of the six women who charged that Simpson had raped them, only two said that they physically resisted him. The other four said they feared that resistance would be futile or that they feared injury if they resisted.
Under a military law doctrine of "constructive force," victims who do not resist sexual advances can be considered to have been raped if they believed that resistance would risk bodily injury or be futile.
Eugene R. Fidell, a military law expert and president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said that Simpson's sentence, if not "crushing," "is certainly a very severe sentence. . . . This serves the purpose."
He noted that the sentence could also be reduced as it goes through an appeals process. Simpson's case will be reviewed by the base commander at Aberdeen, then by the Army Court of Criminal Appeals, which has "wide latitude to substitute [its] judgment for that of the jury," Fidell said.
The appeals court often reduces sentences, he said, noting that Simpson's case can also be taken to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.
While his sentence is being appealed, Simpson will be incarcerated at the Army Disciplinary Barracks at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., where conditions are said to be comparable to those at other federal prisons. The almost century-old barracks houses about 1,000 inmates at detention levels that range from minimum security to death row.
Conditions at the DB, as it is known, are much less severe than those at the Marine Brig at Quantico, Va., where Simpson has lived in a small cell since being arrested last fall.
Army officials, meanwhile, said that the sentence proved they had sent a strong message to other drill instructors and soldiers in a position of responsibility.
"This should be a flare in the night," said Lt. Col. Gabriel Riesco, chief of staff at the Aberdeen Ordnance Center and School. "Those sergeants and instructors out there trolling instead of training should think twice."