Members of Congress and victim advocacy groups reacted with horror and resignation Thursday to news that Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair will avoid jail time and instead be reprimanded and fined after pleading guilty to adultery, mistreating the female captain with whom he had a three-year relationship, misusing a government credit card to pursue the affair and other charges.
Sinclair must still go before a review board that will determine at what rank he will be allowed to retire, but the punishment is far less severe than life in prison, as he had faced. The possible sentence was reduced when sexual assault and other serious charges were dropped in return for his agreement to plead guilty to the other crimes.
Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, called the punishment “laughable.”
“This sentence is a mockery of military justice, a slap on the wrist nowhere close to being proportional to Sinclair’s offenses,” Speier said. “The misuse of government funds should be enough to fire Gen. Sinclair. There are plenty of former government employees who have been canned for less.”
Greg Jacob, a former Marine and current policy director for Service Women’s Action Network, said the case illustrates why prosecution authority should be removed from the defendant and victim’s chain of command, as proposed in a bill by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
“Today’s sentencing is reflective of a case that fell apart long before today,” Jacob said. “The Gen. Sinclair case will go down in history as yet another reason we need Sen. Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act.”
The bill failed to reach the threshold necessary to overcome a filibuster in the Senate, but Gillibrand has vowed to keep fighting until a similar measure passes.
Sexual assaults can be hard to prosecute, and the Sinclair case is particularly complicated, said Sarah Feldman, a spokeswoman for Sen. Claire McCaskill, who opposed Gillibrand’s legislation but pushed for a slate of other significant changes to the military justice system.
Still, the case highlights “what we already know: that commanders are often more aggressive than prosecutors in pursuing prosecutions and vetting those cases,” Feldman said.
Rep. Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican and co-chair of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, said he is deeply disappointed by the sentence.
“This unfortunate outcome bolsters our call to increase mandatory minimum sentencing in cases of sexual assault and sexual misconduct,” he said.
Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., who serves as the other co-chair of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, said she was shocked when she heard Sinclair’s sentence.
“Military leaders must be held to a higher standard, but this sentence undermines that standard of accountability,” Tsongas said. “It is clear that Brig. Gen. Sinclair abused his authority and perpetuated a toxic military culture that is accepting of unprofessional, inappropriate and criminal behavior.”
The case will send a “chilling message” to victims of sexual assault, and likely discourage them from reporting attacks, said Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders.
“The military’s promises of ‘zero tolerance’ for sexual offenses continue to ring hollow as yet another high-ranking official is let off the hook,” Parrish said. “This case demonstrates how high-ranking bad, abusive and even unlawful behavior is tolerated. The level of tolerance is too often dictated by the number of stars you have on your shoulders.”
Mallika Dutt, president and CEO of Breakthrough, a human rights organization, said the sentence also sends a clear — and troubling — message about violence against women.
“We look to our military to, at the very least, uphold their own values of honor, integrity, respect and more. It is deeply disappointing when instead they are seen to uphold the cultural norms that say women are less-than, inferior, dispensable,” Dutt said. “This is the very culture that allows discrimination and violence against women and girls to continue.”
Military leaders have made efforts to address sexual assault in the ranks, including working with Congress to implement changes to the way the military justice system handles the assaults and helps victims.
But, said Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby, military leaders know they must do better.
“We take the crime of sexual assault very, very seriously,” he said Thursday.
Kirby declined to comment on the Sinclair case or sentence but said leaders are concerned about victim confidence in the system and about “the ability of leadership and the system itself — the justice system itself — in making sure that those who are found guilty are held properly accountable.”
Also Thursday, a Naval Academy football player accused of sexually assaulting a female midshipman during an off-campus party in 2012 was found not guilty. The superintendent of the Naval Academy previously decided not to prosecute two other midshipmen who had originally been accused of sexual assault in the case. The case raised more questions about whether victims should feel comfortable reporting assaults.
But, Kirby said, despite such high-profile examples of acquittals or cases that do not go to trial, “there are plenty of other cases that go all the way to trial and get convictions.”
“And look,” he said. “Prosecutions and convictions, while important in terms of holding people accountable, that’s not the ultimate goal here. The ultimate goal here is zero sexual assaults in the military. That’s what we’re after.”
Jon Harper contributed to this report.