Military judge accepts Sinclair plea offer, sentencing begins

Sexual assault charges against Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair have been dropped, and a plea deal accepted.
March 17, 2014 3:17:23 PM PDT
A military judge has accepted the plea offer from Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair, and sentencing for the Fort Bragg officer who faced sex assault charges began Monday afternoon.

"I'm hoping for him to walk out of the courtroom, to retire at a reduced rank and go home to his family," said defense attorney Richard Scheff.

Over the weekend, the government dropped the sex assault charges against Sinclair, whose trial had been ruled damaged by Unlawful Command Influence, or UCI, the week prior. The ruling came after e-mail evidence suggested Sinclair's original Offer To Plea had been rejected as a result of political pressure to prosecute the high-profile case.

The defense requested the documents months ahead of the trial, after a warning from former prosecutor Lt. Col. William Helixon. Helixon would step down from the case just weeks before the trial. The evidence didn't make it into the courtroom until a panel had already heard testimony from the main accuser, and a Freedom of Information Act request was filed.

"Frankly, this is a vindication of Colonel Helixon," said Scheff. "This is what he wanted to do two months ago, two and a half months ago, and he deserves credit. He recognized he had that feeling in his stomach, that the case shouldn't go forward."

On Monday morning, Sinclair submitted guilty pleas to several lesser charges, including maltreatment of his main accuser and using a government-issued credit card for personal use as he carried on a three-year relationship with that woman, a female captain under his command.

Monday's plea offer, combined with another one submitted pre-trial in which the general admitted to adultery, carries a maximum sentence of 25 years and six months in prison, dismissal from the Armed Services and forfeiture of pay and benefits. Sinclair currently makes just over $12,000 a month.

However, that sentence does not take into account the max penalties agreed upon by the government and the defense in the plea deal cut over the weekend. Sinclair's punishment will be whichever sentence is less.

The deal also outlines that Sinclair will not have to register as a sex offender.

"It's taken us a year; it's taken the General two years, to get this case dripped down to its essentials which is basically that he had an adulterous relationship with a subordinate. That's the case "said defense attorney Ellen Brotman. "If anyone thinks that requires jail time, we'll be very surprised."

Sentencing Hearing

The main accuser and her mother were the first two witnesses called to testify in Sinclair's sentencing hearing. Their impact statements will primarily play a role in the punishment issued for the maltreatment charge that Sinclair pleaded guilty to on Monday morning.

"I'm still struggling to stay positive and stay focused on my day-to-day," the main accuser testified. "Life has been very difficult the past two years."

The female captain, often in tears, also testified she has a hard time trusting active-duty authority.

"It's hard not to fear the power they have and how they may use it against me or someone else," she said.

Despite her prior testimony and diary evidence to the contrary that's been entered into the case, the woman denied wanting Sinclair to leave his wife for her.

"Sir, I did not decide to have a relationship with General Sinclair," she told Scheff during cross-examination. "Sir, I would have left a long time ago if were up to me."

Prosecutors have asked the diary entries and iPhone recordings from Afghanistan be sealed after the case is closed.

A suicide attempt was also brought up by prosecutors. The woman agreed with defense attorneys that she'd made the threats in 2012 to get Sinclair's attention.

"I did not have an active plan to kill myself," she testified. "I just wanted to die. I wanted my life to be over."

"He was the only person in the entire world who could get me out of that situation (relationship), and he refused to."

Around the same time the woman had talked to Sinclair about suicide, she took a Rest and Relaxation leave to go on a cruise with her parents, and then stay with them in their Nebraska home.

"She was very uptight. Tighter than a corkscrew," her mother testified. "Very difficult to talk to. We were there to relax and she was anything but relaxed."

The accuser's mother said the woman would "blow up" on her parents and disappear during the cruise. When they returned home, all her daughter wanted to do was make arrangements to return to Afghanistan.

The visit, she said was made difficult by her daughter's constant crying and refusal to talk to her parents about what was going on.

The woman's mother said she often visits her daughter in Arizona, where the captain sleeps on a couch next to a loaded gun and what her mother called a "vicious, 95 pound" dog. 

The defense countered the testimony by entering evidence including happy photos from the cruise, and a thank you note the accuser wrote General Sinclair for her birthday, around the same time she'd gone on R&R. In the note she told him she was "blessed and honored" to work with him.

Court recessed following those two statements, and the prosecution will bring four other witnesses to stand. They're all military. 

The defense will then call 20 military and Sinclair family members to the stand. A letter from his wife, Rebecca, will be read. She is currently at home with the couple's two young sons, said the defense.

"We're going to try to show, to focus now on, the history of General Sinclair," said Brotman.  

"Because really what's been lost in all this is the fact that General Sinclair is a hero. He's been through five deployments, he's been in the military for 27 years, he has been rated year after year after every deployment, after every assignment, as a top performer and a star and someone who cares so much about his soldier....and that's going to be our case."

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