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2nd day of sentencing in US Army general sex case

March 18, 2014

FORT BRAGG, North Carolina (AP) — Lawyers for a U.S. Army general who faced sexual assault charges will aim to downplay the seriousness of the charges to which he pleaded guilty and seek a lenient sentence as the highly scrutinized case nears its conclusion.

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, the highest ranking member of the military to face court-marshal on sexual assault charges, has pleaded guilty to several lesser violations of military law in a plea deal that was accepted by a military judge on Monday. The case drew widespread attention as the U.S. military aims to curtail sexual assault among its ranks.

Sinclair, 51, had been accused of twice forcing a female captain under his command to perform oral sex during a three-year extramarital affair. The captain had also accused him of sexual assault, but those charges were dropped in a plea deal. Prosecutors finished their part of the sentencing hearing before lunch on Tuesday, and Sinclair’s attorneys were expected to start calling about 20 character witnesses in the afternoon.

The most serious accusations against Sinclair went to trial, but a court-martial was halted after the military judge found evidence that there may have been improper influence in a decision to reject a previous plea deal. A new deal was then struck, including Sinclair’s admission that his treatment of the captain was “unwarranted, unjustified and unnecessary,” broke military law and mentally harmed her.

Sinclair has admitted to a three-year affair with the woman and inappropriate relationships with two other subordinates. The married general pleaded guilty earlier this month to having improper relationships with three subordinate officers, including the captain. The former deputy commander of the famed 82nd Airborne also pleaded guilty to adultery, which is a crime in the military.

A lawyer who advised the accuser issued a statement Monday saying she stood by the assault accusation.

Ultimately, the judge will give Sinclair a sentence that can’t exceed terms in the agreement struck between defense lawyers and military attorneys over the weekend, but has not been made public. The legal agreement is likely to require a punishment far less severe than the maximum penalties of 21 ½ years in prison and dismissal from the Army.

The Army’s case against Sinclair started to crumble as questions arose about whether his primary accuser had lied in a pre-trial hearing. It was further thrown into jeopardy last week when Judge Col. James Pohl said the military may have improperly pressed ahead with the trial to send a message about its determination to curb rape and other widespread misconduct. Under the military code of justice, the decision was supposed to be decided solely on the evidence, not its broader political implications.

On Monday, Sinclair also admitted to abusing a government credit card he used while traveling to visit his mistress, using indecent language to demean female officers and contacting the accuser after being told not to.

The captain who is Sinclair’s primary accuser took the stand Monday and said she can’t trust anyone and fears her superiors will take advantage of her. The Associated Press generally does not identify those who say they were victims of sexual assault.

Suspicions of an Army general’s extramarital affair with a subordinate had circulated widely enough that soldiers portrayed the two in a sexually suggestive skit at a 2010 party, according to witness testimony Tuesday.

Lt. Col. Benjamin Bigelow testified at a sentencing hearing that the skit was performed during a party at which Sinclair was being honored in Germany. It involved a soldier dressed up as Sinclair and a soldier dressed as a woman in a brown wig to represent the captain who was his primary accuser, Bigelow testified.

During the skit, the character in the wig “moved in front of the Sinclair character’s crotch and offered to do something for him,” Bigelow said. “There was absolutely no question.”

Bigelow said Sinclair’s wife attended the party and was “clearly shocked, angered and dismayed.” He said the accuser was not at the party.

At Monday’s hearing, prosecutors also called Lt. Nargis Kabiri to testify that she rebuffed advances from Sinclair, who invited her to go horseback riding after she sought him out as a mentor.

Sinclair pleaded guilty to conduct unbecoming of an officer for the advances on Kabiri, who was not one of the three subordinates with whom he admitted an inappropriate relationship.

She said the publicity of being connected to the Sinclair case has hurt her as she tries to move through the ranks in the male-dominated area of field artillery.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.