Sex assault court martial ends with plea deal

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair leaves the courthouse following a day of motions, March 4, 2014, at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair leaves the courthouse following a day of motions, March 4, 2014, at Fort Bragg, N.C.

The closely-watched court martial of Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair drew to a close on Monday as Sinclair, 51, pleaded guilty to lesser charges as part of a deal reached with prosecutors. The most serious charges -- including sexual assault and two other counts that could have landed Sinclair in prison for life and required him to register as a sex offender -- were dropped.

The lesser charges include disobeying a commander's order not to contact his alleged victim, using demeaning language to refer to female officers and "maltreatment" of his alleged victim. The Times reported that in that section of the plea document, Sinclair admits to having acted “in a manner which when viewed objectively under all the circumstances was unwarranted, unjustified and unnecessary and reasonably could have caused mental harm or suffering during the course of an ongoing inappropriate sexual relationship.”

In exchange, prosecuters dismissed charges that Sinclair forced the woman, a now 34-year-old captain, to perform oral sex on him and later threatened to kill her family. The general, 51 and married with two children, pleaded guilty earlier this month to charges of having inappropriate relationships with subordinate officers and possession of pornography. 

A military judge accepted Sinclair's guilty plea on Monday. A sentencing hearing is expected to begin after a short recess.

Sinclair's prosecution has received intense scrutiny, both because of his rank and because of the recent focus on the military's fight to curb rampant sexual abuse within the armed forces. The defense received a major break when the judge presiding over the case ruled that a commander overseeing the case may have been improperly influenced to go forward with the prosecution because of the recent focus on sexual assault in the military. The judge, Colonel James Pohl, suspended the court martial as a result, but said that prosecutors could renew an earlier deal that they had offered Sinclair.

A report released last spring found that approximately 26,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact occurred during the 2012 fiscal year, but that only 3,374 were reported, and of those, only 302 went to trial. The statistics and a series of other high profile sexual assault cases, some involving officers assigned to prevent sexual assault and harassment, led Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill to propose major reforms to the military's sexual assault prosecution system.

Related: Sen. Claire McCaskill answered your questions about her bill

Gillibrand's bill was defeated when it failed to garner 60 votes, but McCaskill's bill passed overwhelmingly. Reforms proposed by McCaskill and supported by Gillibrand were passed with the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, and are in the process of being implemented.

President Obama has ordered Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey to conduct a comprehensive review of Defense Department policies related to sexual assault. That review is expected to be completed by December 1, 2014.