General’s defense to try for plea bargain in sexual-assault case

March 11, 2014

Attorneys for an Army general charged with sexual assault said Tuesday that they have decided to try to renegotiate a plea bargain with a new set of military officials after the judge determined that the case may have been improperly influenced by political concerns.

Judge Col. James Pohl sent the jury of generals back to their duty stations around the world after attorneys for Brig. Gen Jeffrey A. Sinclair announced their decision. The two sides will enter negotiations to try to resolve the case. A new general and legal advisers would have to be brought in to approve any new deal.

“There are other issues that have come up in this trial,” Pohl told the jurors as he dismissed them. “Sometimes there are twists and turns you can’t anticipate.”

Pohl had declined to dismiss the charges outright Monday. But he reviewed newly disclosed e-mails in Sinclair’s case and said he found the appearance of “unlawful command influence” in Fort Bragg officials’ decision to reject a plea bargain with the general in January.

The twist came with the Pentagon under heavy pressure from Congress and others to combat rape and other sex crimes in the military. Under the military code of justice, the decision was supposed to be decided solely on the evidence, not its broader political implications.

But Pohl said the e-mails showed that the military officials who rejected the plea bargain had discussed a letter from the accuser’s attorney. The letter warned that allowing the general to avoid trial would “send the wrong signal.”

Sinclair, 51, the former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, is accused of twice forcing a female captain to perform oral sex on him in Afghanistan in 2011 during a three-year extramarital affair. He has admitted to the affair but denied assaulting the woman.

The defense has portrayed the woman as a liar who concocted the allegations after she saw ­e-mails between Sinclair and another woman.

Sinclair, believed to be the highest-ranking U.S. military officer court-martialed on sexual assault charges, appeared upbeat as he left the courthouse Tuesday morning, joking with military police officers who guard the door.

Lead defense attorney Richard Scheff said Sinclair would not agree to plead guilty to any charges involving sexual assault or any charges that would result in his being required to register as a sex offender.

“He did not sexually assault anybody,” Scheff said. “He did not threaten anybody. He’s not maltreated anybody. We’d love to resolve the case. But if we can’t, we look forward to our day in court and his vindication.”

Even though the defense team appeared optimistic it could reach a deal, Scheff said it might still be weeks before the case is resolved.

Lt. Col. Robert Stelle, the lead prosecutor, declined to comment.

— Associated Press

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