WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (Reuters) - The rare court-martial of a U.S. Army general charged with sex crimes will delve into explicit details of his adulterous affair with a female captain in two war zones, and alleged inappropriate email exchanges with several other subordinates.
The accusations led to Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair’s removal from command in Afghanistan in 2012 and his trial, set to begin on Tuesday at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, will shed light on how the military handles such complaints.
Proponents of military justice reform say the case underscores broader problems with the U.S. armed forces’ approach to sexual assault prosecutions and shows the need for an overhaul as such crime reports increase.
A chief concern, reform advocates say, is that the current system gives military commanders without legal training control over prosecutions, prompting accusations of partiality.
“This case is illustrating why the current system can be very counter-productive,” said Diane Mazur, a former Air Force officer and professor of military and constitutional law at the University of Florida.
Sinclair’s attorneys argue that defense officials facing intense political pressure to curb sexual violence in the military have targeted an officer who has served five combat tours with sex charges that hang on weak evidence and an unreliable primary witness.
The lead prosecutor in the case resigned less than a month before trial because military leaders were ordering him to proceed despite his doubts about the main accuser’s trustworthiness, according to the defense.
Claims of unlawful command influence and questions about the accuser’s credibility have overshadowed the array of disciplinary lapses of which Sinclair stands accused, including seeking nude photos from female soldiers, possessing pornography while deployed and mistreating subordinates.
Preliminary data shows the military received approximately 5,400 reports of sexual assault in fiscal year 2013, a 60 percent increase over the 3,374 victims’ reports received in fiscal year 2012, a Defense Department spokeswoman said.
Lieutenant Colonel Cathy Wilkinson said Pentagon officials consider the rise in reports a positive sign that their efforts in the past year to crack down on sexual violence have bolstered victims’ confidence in the military’s response.
Defense officials oppose a Senate plan that would transfer the power to decide whether to try sexual assault cases to an independent military prosecutor. The military prides itself on being apolitical, and outside scrutiny has not factored into which cases result in charged offenses, Wilkinson said.
“They are pursued because they’ve been independently investigated and there’s been evidence that supports charging these crimes,” she said.
Whether Sinclair, who is among only a handful of generals to face a court-martial in recent decades, is guilty of sexual assault will be a central question posed to the five other generals who sit as panel members.
Sinclair, 51, a married father of two school-age children, admits to an affair with an unmarried 34-year-old captain. It began when they deployed to Iraq in 2009 and continued for several years through deployments in Germany and Afghanistan and time spent back in the United States.
Text messages, some of them sexually provocative, between the two soldiers reveal their mutual affection. “You make me happy,” Sinclair wrote in April 2011.
“You are my heart and world you beautiful magnificent man,” said the captain, whose name is being withheld by Reuters due to the nature of the charges.
But prosecutors also said the general threatened to harm her career and family if she exposed their relationship, and twice forced her to perform oral sex. The latter allegation is the basis for another charge, forcible sodomy, that could send Sinclair to prison for life, if he is convicted.
Sinclair denies ever engaging in nonconsensual sex, and his lead defense attorney said there is no evidence that the general abused his power or any of his subordinates.
“He had inappropriate behavior, but it’s not coercive behavior,” said Richard Scheff, a civilian attorney who is chairman of the Montgomery McCracken law firm in Philadelphia.
Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Gunna Dickson