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Hearing begins for airman whose case was removed from Franklin

WASHINGTON — Against the objection of defense attorneys, the Air Force on Tuesday took another crack at prosecuting an alleged rape thrown out by a general at the center of the controversy over military sexual assault.

An Article 32 probable cause hearing began Tuesday for Airman First Class Brandon T. Wright, charged with raping a female sergeant in July 2012 when both were stationed at Aviano Air Base, Italy.

After a previous investigation of the case, Third Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin in August declined to prosecute Wright.

But concerned about inconsistencies in the process, top Air Force officials took the highly unusual step of removing Franklin as convening authority. It was assigned instead to Maj. Gen. Sharon K.G. Dunbar, commander of Air Force District of Washington.

Franklin, who had sparked intense criticism after reversing the sexual-assault conviction of a fighter pilot, Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, announced last week he was retiring.

The hearing at Andrews Air Force base is meant to determine whether there is enough evidence to convene a court-martial for Wright.

Maj. Dominic Angiollo, a defense attorney for Wright, told the officer running the hearing that his client shouldn’t have to defend himself a second time.

“We object to this hearing generally,” Angiollo said. “We’ve already been through an Article 32. We thought that was conducted properly.”

The investigating officer, Lt. Col. Shaun Speranza, said that despite the environment surrounding the case, there was no pressure on him to send it to court-martial.

“I can assure you, Airman Wright, defense counsel, trial counsel — there has been no attempt to influence my impartiality.”

The alleged victim, whose name is being withheld because of the sexual nature of the offense, described being raped by Wright after a night of drinking and watching movies at her home.

After another airman present passed out or fell asleep, she said Wright pulled her on top of him and began forcibly kissing her. She argued with him to stop, she said, “to make him see what he was doing and how much I didn’t want it.”

But instead, she testified, Wright pulled her shorts down and forced oral sex upon her, and then pulled down his own pants and raped her.

She tried to escape, she said, but felt unaccountably weak.

“I was scared; I was frozen,” she said. “I couldn’t think, I felt I couldn’t move. My body felt heavy.”

Afterward, she said, Wright fell to the ground, fearful and distraught.

“He was saying he was sorry,” she said. “He said please don’t call SARC [a sexual assault response coordinator] on me. He was saying it over and over.”

But testimony Tuesday from someone who was friendly with both Wright and the accuser painted a different picture. According to Senior Airman Shaun Sosa, who was present at the time of the alleged assault, the woman and Wright had been flirting for hours during a trip to a local mall and dinner at McDonalds.

When the three went to the woman’s house to watch movies and drink, the pair ended up cuddling under a blanket, Sosa said. Later, he said he heard both giggles and moans of pleasure from the woman, he said, but never suspected Wright was assaulting her.

After the two apparently had sex, the woman came to another room where he was waiting but did not mention an assault. Instead she told him Wright was leaving the house. Sosa said he followed, and found the seemingly upset airman mumbling about an ex-girlfriend and a child who died in the womb.

When he went back inside, he said, the woman told him Wright had raped her, and then the trio all went to sleep. Driving back to base the next day, Wright was shocked to hear the woman’s allegation from Sosa.

“He said that’s not something he would ever do,” Sosa said.

Earlier in the day, a nurse who conducted a rape examination of the alleged victim said in testimony by telephone from Aviano that she noted some bruises on her leg but found no evidence of sex. 

Wright’s attorneys said he did not plan to take the stand during the hearing.

On the advice of legal advisers, Franklin dismissed charges of rape, aggravated sexual conduct, abusive sexual conduct and disorderly conduct against Wright after the previous investigation.

As reported in Stars and Stripes, Franklin refused to meet with the accuser before dropping the charges, even though such meetings are encouraged and some believe they are required by regulations.

Franklin had received similar criticism for not notifying the victim in the Wilkerson case before overturning the conviction — an action that spurred Congress to make changes in the sections of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that govern sexual assault prosecutions.

Carroll.chris@Stripes.com
Twitter@ChrisCarroll_
 

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