AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, the former 31st Fighter Wing inspector general and F-16 pilot, was sentenced to a year in jail and dismissed from the Air Force on Saturday after being convicted of aggravated sexual assault.
Wilkerson wept after the sentence was read, as he had before the sentencing, when he pleaded with the all-male jury of four colonels and a lieutenant colonel for “compassion.”
“All I can ask and beg of you is that you do not rip my family apart,” Wilkerson told the jury. He promised to retire immediately if the jury did not strip him of benefits. He also asked that the jury keep in mind that he would now have to register as a sex offender.
Wilkerson’s dismissal is analogous to an enlisted military member’s dishonorable discharge, making him ineligible to receive retirement pay and benefits.
Wilkerson was convicted on Friday of fondling the breasts of a sleeping houseguest and digitally penetrating her. The March assault ended, the victim testified, when his wife came in sometime around 3 a.m., turned on a light, saw her husband in the woman’s bed and ordered the woman out of the house.
The woman, a 49-year-old physician’s assistant, also addressed jurors before Wilkerson’s sentencing about the impact of the assault on her. “I’m not myself anymore,” she said tearfully. “I’m different. I’m just numb most of the time.”
Prosecutors had urged the jury to imprison the 44-year-old fighter pilot for at least five years, as well as dismiss him from the Air Force. He’d shown striking hubris and recklessness by assaulting the woman with his wife and 9-year-old son sleeping under the same roof, said prosecutor Capt. Ben Beliles, who suggested that Wilkerson would have escalated his assault if his wife hadn’t awoken. “Thank God Beth caught him in the act,” Beliles said.
“It must not be said that Lt. Col. Wilkerson got away with a slap on the wrist,” Beliles said, or that the Air Force didn’t take his crimes seriously.
He noted that Wilkerson had expressed no remorse in his statement. Considerations about the finances of the Wilkerson family, were he dismissed, were ill-placed, Beliles said, especially in light of his wife having lied in her testimony to the court, concocting with her husband a story of why she had thrown the woman out, shoeless, into the cold March morning.
“Ask yourself, does she deserve it after she did that?” Beliles asked.
As for Wilkerson having to register as a sex offender, the prosecutor said that was just another reason to dismiss him. “Should a registered sex offender be walking around as a retired Air Force officer?”
Defense lawyer Capt. Jeffrey Martin in his subdued remarks to the jury said that Wilkerson had rehabilitation potential, shown by his 20-year Air Force career before the assault and a blemish-free record for the past seven months.
“This is one night,” Martin said. “I’m not saying it’s a good night. One night and 240 months of service.”
“Warehousing” Wilkerson for five years, Martin said, would do no one any good, and he urged the jurors to consider the effect of dismissal on Wilkerson’s innocent son. “There are no winners here today,” Martin said. “But take into account people who had nothing to do with it, their futures, their lives and everything he’s worked for.”
The jury deliberated for about 2½ hours on the sentence, about an hour less than it took to reach the guilty verdicts on Friday. Wilkerson was also convicted of abusive sexual contact and three counts of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman, but those charges were merged into the aggravated assault for sentencing purposes. The jury’s discretion was vast, from no punishment to 30 years’ confinement.
Wilkerson was taken officially into custody as soon as the sentence was read. He was allowed to spend some time with his wife and friends before being handcuffed and taken to the U.S. Army Corrections Facility in Mannheim, Germany.
The case now goes for review and approval to the convening authority in the case, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the 3rd Air Force. Franklin could reduce, but not increase, Wilkerson’s sentence.
The verdict and sentence go automatically to the Air Force’s appellate court.
Lead defense attorney Frank Spinner said after the sentencing that he believed there were ample grounds to have the verdict overturned.
In particular, he said, the judge in the case, Col. Jefferson Brown, erred when he disallowed testimony from the victim’s ex-husband’s current wife, with whom the victim had been embroiled in a custody battle a decade ago, on her opinion of the victim’s truthfulness.