FT. BRAGG, N.C. — Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair was sentenced Thursday, receiving a reprimand and no jail time for mistreating a subordinate with whom he had a three-year adulterous affair, to end a tumultuous court-martial that focused national attention on the military’s uneven response to sexual misconduct in the ranks.
The military judge hearing the case, Col. James L. Pohl, also ordered Sinclair, 51, to forfeit $5,000 of pay per month for four months and pay restitution of around $4,100 for misusing his government charge card. Sinclair will be allowed to retire, his rank to be determined by a military retirement board.
The one-star general immediately hugged defense attorney Ellen Brotman, who was seated next to him, and then stood and hugged fellow officers who had testified on his behalf.
Lead defense attorney Richard L. Scheff turned to the defense team and said, “Wow.” He then immediately hugged Maj. Sean Foster who delivered the defense closing on Wednesday and told him, “You are the man.”
[Updated 9:18 a.m. PDT March 20: The punishment closes a deeply flawed case that embarrassed the Army and was undercut by the judge’s ruling of likely political interference and by accusations that the general’s accuser, an Army captain, lied on the witness stand. The sentence was certain to outrage advocacy groups who have accused the military of protecting senior commanders accused of sexual misconduct.
“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 Sinclair, who has stood by him despite his adultery and 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.]
The 27-year veteran of five combat tours had faced up to 25½ years in prison. But an agreement between prosecutors and the defense limited his punishment. Pohl could not see the agreement before imposing sentence.
The senior commander at Ft. Bragg, Maj. Gen. Clarence K.K. 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 faced life in prison and had to register as a sex offender.
[Updated 9:03 a.m. PDT March 20: Initial reaction to Sinclair’s sentence included a statement from the Service Women’s Action Network’s policy director Greg Jacob.
“Today’s sentencing is reflective of a case that fell apart long before today,” Jacob, a former Marine, said in the statement. “A system shaky enough to be rocked by allegations of undue command influence cannot provide justice for our troops.”]
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, and 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 a Ft. Bragg spokeswoman, Maj. Crystal 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 doubts about proving the sexual assault charges, but said he still believed the captain was telling the truth about forced oral sex.
Sinclair, 51, 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.
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, ages 10 and 12, for the pain and embarrassment his behavior had caused them. Rebecca Sinclair was not in court but told the judge in a statement, which a lawyer read in court Wednesday, 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.”