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Politics could have influenced rejection of general’s plea bargain, military court says

Posted Mar 11, 2014 6:00 AM CDT
By Stephanie Francis Ward

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Military leaders may have unlawfully interfered in a plea offer made by Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, a judge in the trial found Monday. Sinclair is accused of sexually assaulting a captain who reported to him.

According to the Guardian, Judge Col. James Pohl on Monday stated from the bench that he was “not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt” that prosecutors and their commanders acted independent of Pentagon pressure when they rejected Sinclair’s plea offer last year, the New York Times reports. He dismissed the jury for the rest of the day, and gave Sinclair's attorneys until Tuesday to submit a new plea offer.

Congress has criticized the Pentagon for not cracking down on sexual assault in the military, the article notes, and it's been suggested that Sinclair's plea agreement was rejected over concerns that dropping his prosecution would be politically unpopular.

Charges against Sinclair include forcible sodomy, maltreatment and conduct unbecoming of an officer. According to the New York Times, emails reveal that Sinclair previously offered to plead guilty to adultery and conduct unbecoming of an officer if the military dropped the sexual assault charges.

The defense has focused its case on the captain’s credibility, and last week Sinclair pleaded guilty to a set of lesser charges, including possession of pornography and adultery, the New York Times reports.

On Sunday, Sinclair's lawyers filed a motion arguing unlawful command influence, based on emails they obtained. They say that the emails show that the convening authority in the case, Lt. Col. Joseph Anderson, made the decision to deny the plea offer after receiving an email from the captain's special victims counsel which told him that accepting the deal "would have an adverse effect on my client and the Army's fight against sexual assault," according to Reuters.

Also, according to the New York Times, the emails revealed that former lead prosecutor Lt. Col. William Helixon had concerns that the captain testified untruthfully. The article notes that the captain told prosecutors she found her old iPhone, which contained messages between herself and Gen. Sinclair.

The captain, 34, testified that Sinclair, 51, twice forced her to engage in oral sex after she tried to break off a three-year affair they had, Reuters reports. She also accuses him of grabbing her genitalia against her will and having sex with her in public, according to Reuters. The charges led to Sinclair being removed from command in southern Afghanistan.

It’s believed that Sinclair is the highest-ranking U.S. military officer to be tried on sex assault charges, according to the Guardian. If he does not file a new plea, the New York Times reports, Sinclair’s trial could proceed Tuesday.

Updated at 9:15 a.m. to add details and rewrite the headline.

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