FT. BRAGG, N.C. — In a sentence so light it stunned even his lawyers, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair was sentenced Thursday to a reprimand and no jail time for misusing his authority over 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.
A military judge ordered Sinclair, 51, to forfeit $20,000 in salary and pay restitution of $4,156 for misusing his government charge card. But the former deputy commander of U.S. forces in southern Afghanistan will be allowed to retire and receive a pension and benefits at a rank to be determined by a military retirement board.
The punishment closes a deeply flawed prosecution that embarrassed the Army and raised questions about whether military commanders pushed the case forward for political reasons despite doubts about the accuser’s credibility. Failure to secure a tough sentence in the military’s most closely watched sexual misconduct case outraged reform advocates, who have accused the military of protecting senior commanders accused in such cases.
The outcome intensifies political and public pressure on the military to improve the often-haphazard way it has coped with a surge of sexual assault incidents. The Pentagon last year estimated there were 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact, but only 3,374 sexual assaults were reported — a 6% increase over the previous year.
The verdict came the same day a U.S. Naval Academy football player was found not guilty of sexually assaulting a female midshipman.
“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 Army captain who accused Sinclair of forcing her into sex acts and threatening to kill her and her family if she told his wife of their long-running affair. Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democratic Bay Area congresswoman who has pushed for stronger action by the military in sexual assault cases, called the sentence “a mockery of military justice, a slap on the wrist nowhere close to being proportional to Sinclair’s offenses.”
Repeated allegations of military rape and sexual abuse have made headlines, but the Sinclair case marked the first time that an active-duty general was prosecuted for such flagrant violations of Army rules governing sexual misconduct and treatment of subordinates. His affair with the much-younger accuser was so well known that members of his unit performed a 2010 skit — witnessed by Sinclair and his wife — that suggested oral sex between the general and the captain.
Complicating the case initially was the difficultly of determining when a sexual adventure — described in messages by both participants as exciting and fulfilling — allegedly turned into rape.
“The Army wants to tell Congress, ‘Hey, we can corral our own,’ but I’m afraid this case does not exemplify that,” said Anita Gorecki, a former Army legal officer who represents military personnel.
Sinclair long ago admitted the affair but said it was consensual. Advocacy groups said no sexual contact between a senior commander and a junior officer can be consensual given a commander’s absolute authority.
“It is sexual abuse from the beginning” of any such relationship, Barnett said.
The Sinclair verdict was celebrated in the courthouse by an ecstatic defense team, which appeared to be taken aback by the relatively lenient sentence. “Wow,” lead defense counsel Richard L. Scheff said before exchanging hugs and handshakes with fellow members of the team.
So concerned were they that he would be sentenced to jail, they said, that they brought a black overcoat to shield the handcuffs had he been taken into custody — they laughed with relief when the coat wasn’t needed.
Sinclair smiled and bear-hugged military colleagues who had testified on his behalf.
“The system worked — I’ve always been proud of my Army,” he said outside the courthouse. “All I want to do now ... is hug my kids and see my wife.”
Minutes after the judge’s sentence, Sinclair telephoned his wife, Rebecca, who has stood by him despite his adultery. She asked the judge in a statement read in court Wednesday not to punish her and the couple’s two boys, 10 and 12, whom she described as “the only truly innocent victims” in the case, by depriving them of Sinclair’s pay and benefits.
Sinclair, a 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. After entering guilty pleas on lesser charges, he faced up to 251/2 years in prison, although prosecutors agreed to a cap of 18 months.
Prosecutors had asked the judge, Col. James L. Pohl, to dismiss Sinclair from the Army, ending all benefits, but did not request prison time.
“This restores our faith in the system,” Scheff told reporters. “Someone who’s neutral and objective looked at the evidence and did the right thing.”
Scheff said the general hoped to appear soon — perhaps later 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 West Virginia, where he and his wife have bought a house.
The sentence allows Sinclair to remain in the Army. He was removed in 2012 from his command role in Afghanistan. Scheff said the general intended to retire.
If the board allows him to retire as a lieutenant colonel — the last rank he served honorably — he would lose an estimated $831,000 in benefits he would have received until age 82. His currently 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 deal, the Army agreed to dismiss charges that Sinclair had threatened to kill his accuser, 34, 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.
The case was troubled from the start. The defense accused the Army of trumping up charges to show that it was cracking down on sexual misconduct by top commanders. The defense characterized Sinclair’s conduct as little more than a messy, if adulterous, workplace romance.
The defense portrayed the accuser as an ambitious and flirtatious officer who enjoyed 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.
The Army depicted Sinclair as a sexual predator who exploited impressionable junior officers who came to him for mentoring. A young lieutenant who testified that Sinclair asked her for a date said her association with the case had left other senior male officers suspicious of her and unwilling to meet her alone in their offices.
The Army said Sinclair had abused his rank and authority to pressure the captain into continuing — and keeping silent about — the illicit affair. Adultery is a crime in the Army. The accuser testified under a grant of immunity.
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.”
His ruling paved the way for a more generous plea offer to Sinclair in the midst of a case that began to unravel 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 original lead prosecutor, 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 had misled him.
Sinclair at that time pleaded guilty to mistreating the captain; he also admitted 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.
Earlier in the case, Sinclair had pleaded guilty to adultery, impeding an investigation by deleting nude photos from a civilian woman, possessing pornography in a war zone, conducting inappropriate relationships with two other female officers and improperly asking the lieutenant for a date.
Sinclair wept when he told Pohl on Wednesday that he had dishonored the 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.
The general described “a deep and abiding sense of shame and remorse” for mistreating his former lover and causing her “emotional harm and suffering.”
Maj. Rebecca DiMuro, a special victim prosecutor, told the judge: “Gen. Sinclair let the Army down.”