HOUSTON -- A jury at San Antonio’s Lackland Air Force Base on Wednesday found a boot camp instructor not guilty of having unwanted sexual contact with a recruit under his command, officials said.
The jury’s decision after nearly five hours of deliberations was a victory for Staff Sgt. Kwinton Estacio, who defense attorneys had argued during the three-day court-martial had consensual sex with his alleged victim, a trainee identified only as Airman 1.
On Tuesday, the charge had been reduced from sexual assault to unwanted sexual contact. Estacio pleaded guilty to two other related charges Monday.
Jurors began deliberating at 10 a.m. Central time Wednesday, then briefly returned to the courtroom at lunchtime and asked the judge a question about the charge of unwanted sexual contact. They returned three hours later with a verdict, Lackland spokesman Brent Boller said.
The judge, Lt. Col. Matthew Van Dalen, gave jurors the option of taking a break, but they chose instead to immediately proceed to sentencing deliberations, Boller said.
Estacio, 29, is the fourth Lackland instructor to stand trial in recent months for alleged illicit sexual encounters with trainees. So far, 17 trainers have been investigated; three have been convicted or pleaded guilty.
Estacio was originally charged with sexual assault, but the judge on Tuesday threw out the charge based on a lack of evidence, reducing it to wrongful sexual contact, which carries a maximum one-year prison term.
Given the charges to which Estacio pleaded guilty Monday -- violating a rule prohibiting trainers from having intimate relationships with trainees and obstructing an Air Force investigation -- he now faces up to 13 years in prison.
Also Wednesday, a spokesman for Rep. Howard P. ‘‘Buck’’ McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) announced that the House Armed Services Committee, which he chairs, plans to hold public hearings about the Lackland sex scandal once prosecutions have concluded.
Advocates for military victims of sexual assault had been demanding public hearings on the scandal at Lackland, pressing McKeon with questions on Facebook and a petition signed by more than 10,000 people on Causes.com.
“We wait to hear more details on the nature of the hearings. However, this is a significant step forward for our brave men and women in uniform,” Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, a Burlingame, Calif.-based nonprofit, said in a statement Wednesday.
“This is not just a crisis in the training commands — it’s throughout the armed forces and has been for decades. The epidemic of sexual in our military must be addressed systemically and this requires congressional hearings and legislation, so that Lackland does not become another Tailhook or Aberdeen.”
Of the estimated 19,000 victims of rape and sexual assault in the military annually, more than half of them male, only 13.5% come forward, Parrish said, blaming the low percentage on the fear of retaliation.
“Of those who come forward, 80% would not do so again if given the chance,” she said.
[For the record, 6:42 p.m. Sept. 12: An earlier version of this post said 19,000 rapes and sexual assaults are reported in the military each year. Actually, 19,000 is the estimated number of attacks.]