A disgraced Army general who admitted carrying on a prolonged, turbulent affair with an officer under his direct command and having improper relationships with two other women was reprimanded and fined $20,000 by a military judge Thursday.
To his visible relief, however, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair was spared a jail sentence. The decorated combat veteran hugged his lawyers and friends after his sentence was imposed by Col. James Pohl, the military judge who oversaw his court-martial at Fort Bragg, N.C.
“The system worked. I’ve always been proud of my Army,” Sinclair told reporters. “All I want to do now is go north and hug my kids and wife.”
For two years, Sinclair’s court-martial had made him the public face of the military’s struggle to prevent and police sexual misconduct in the ranks. He was only the third Army general to face court-martial in 60 years, a measure that critics called emblematic of the military’s reluctance to hold senior commanders accountable for all kinds of wrongdoing.
Although Sinclair was pleased with the outcome, his chief accuser and some advocacy groups for sex-crime victims expressed deep disappointment. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) called the sentence “a mockery of military justice” and a “laughable punishment.”
Sinclair was originally charged with crimes that could have landed him in prison for life.
His accuser, a much younger female captain who served on his staffs in Iraq and Afghanistan, reported in March 2012 that she had been the married general’s lover for three years. She also said that he had sexually assaulted her on two occasions and once threatened to kill her and her family if she told anyone about the affair.
The Army prosecuted Sinclair for those offenses for nearly two years, but suddenly dropped the charges this month and cut a plea deal with the general after prosecutors admitted they had doubts about the reliability of the general’s mistress. Their hand was also forced after the judge ruled that there was evidence the Army had allowed politics and external considerations to influence its handling of the case.
In the end, Sinclair pleaded guilty to adultery, maltreatment of his accuser and two other improper relationships. He also admitted to making derogatory comments about women and, when challenged by his staff, replying: “I’m a general, I’ll say whatever the [expletive] I want.”
The accuser’s attorney, Jamie Barnett, a retired Navy rear admiral, said she was “obviously devastated” that Sinclair’s sentence wasn’t more severe.
“It’s a terrible outcome, and by failing to render justice today, the Army’s going to face the reality that this could happen again,” said Barnett, now a lawyer in private practice. “It’s really beyond disappointing. It’s a travesty for the Army and military justice in general.”
The Washington Post generally does not identify alleged victims of sex crimes.
Coincidentally, Sinclair was sentenced on the same day that another high-profile sexual assault prosecution in the military collapsed.
In that case, a military judge at the Washington Navy Yard found a former Navy football player not guilty of sexually assaulting a female classmate at an April 2012 party. The Navy had originally charged two other midshipmen in the same incident but later cleared both as the case slowly crumbled.
In the past, military leaders have been criticized for not taking sex abuse allegations seriously and for mistreating victims. But in the courts-martial that culminated Thursday, the evidence of sexual assault rested largely on the testimony of the accusers, both of whom struggled to give a consistent and clear account.
Advocacy groups for sexual-
assault victims were quick to seize on the outcomes as another sign that the military justice system is ill-equipped to handle such cases.
Nancy Parrish, the president of Protect our Defenders, said the results would discourage other members of the military from coming forward to report sex crimes.
“The military’s promises of ‘zero tolerance’ for sexual offenses continues to ring hollow as yet another high ranking official is let off the hook,” she said of the Sinclair case. “It has been long known within the military that General Sinclair conducted himself in outrageous and inappropriate, even unlawful ways. His behavior was not addressed until this victim came forward.”
Sinclair’s attorney, Richard Scheff, retorted that people who thought the general got away with a light sentence were ignoring the facts. “Critics of this ruling who weren’t in court and haven’t seen the evidence have no idea what they’re talking about.”
Sinclair admitted the affair but vigorously denied assaulting or threatening the woman. His lawyers portrayed her as a jealous mistress who spoke out after she read suggestive e-mails he had sent to other women, and because he refused to divorce his wife.
He could be punished further financially. His attorneys have said they expect he will have to retire from the Army at a lower rank, which would diminish his pension benefits.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, declined to comment on Sinclair’s sentence. But he acknowledged that the military needed to do more to deter and prosecute sex crimes.
“We know we need to get better. We know that there are changes that need to continue to be made,” Kirby told reporters. “Our focus is on making sure victims have the confidence to report and that those who are proven guilty of a crime are held accountable.”
Ernesto Londoño contributed to this report.