Overturning verdict was right decision, general says
Stars and Stripes
Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin has no regrets about his decision to overturn a fighter pilot’s sexual assault conviction, despite the ensuing national uproar, he said recently.
“I’ll tell you I am sleeping like a baby at night time,” Franklin testified at a staff sergeant’s court-martial hearing last month at RAF Lakenheath, England. “I made the right decision even amidst all the attacks… I can sleep well at night because I know I made the right call.”
Franklin had been called to testify by the defense, seeking to know whether the general could remain an impartial court-martial convening authority in the tumultuous wake of his decision to overturn the aggravated sexual assault conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson. A military jury at Aviano Air Base, Italy, had convicted Wilkerson in November and sentenced him to a year in jail, dismissal and total pay forfeiture. Franklin’s subsequent decision, as the convening authority in that case, released the 44-year-old F-16 pilot from jail and reinstated him into the Air Force.
But Franklin’s certainty of a righteous disposition of the case is not universally shared. A U.S. senator has suggested he be fired, and the Defense Department is working with Congress to change the military law — as a result of Franklin’s decision — to strip commanders with the authority to convene courts-martial of some of their vast discretionary powers.
In a letter released this week, Franklin explained his reasoning for deciding that Wilkerson had not been proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and thus overturning the verdict of the five-colonel jury, who were convinced after hearing witness testimony that Wilkerson had groped a 49-year-old physician assistant sleeping in his guest room after a party.
The record of the divisive case is now available online and includes a redacted copy of the 1,090-page trial transcript from United States v. Wilkerson, the defense’s lengthy clemency package, and a video of Wilkerson’s interview with Air Force investigators.
Many of the issues in the case that have been debated for months in Senate hearings and online comments are there, including matters that were ruled inadmissible at court-martial, such as Wilkerson’s polygraph result — “indicative of deception,” according to the polygrapher and the proposed testimony of the accuser’s ex-husband’s second wife, a brigadier general in the reserves, who the judge ruled could not testify because her opinion that the accuser was “malicious in her dishonesty” was based on a custody dispute at least a decade earlier.
Additionally included are phone records, witness statements and 92 letters supporting Wilkerson and criticizing the accuser, the prosecutor, the jury, the judge and others, from a variety of Air Force generals and colonels, friends and family members.
“I hope you remember me. We crossed paths occasionally during my career. My call sign is ‘Ragman,’” began a four-page letter to Franklin from retired Col. Robert Harvey.
Wilkerson was innocent, Harvey wrote; his accuser, a “woman scorned” who “begins to make up a story.”
Joseph Ashy — a retired four-star general who himself was the subject of a national scandal in 1995 after it was discovered that he, a 21-year-old airman listed as his “dependent,” and the Ashy family cat were the sole passengers aboard a 200-seat, bedroom equipped, C-141 for a 14-hour flight from Aviano Air Base to Colorado — also wrote on Wilkerson’s behalf.
“The Accuser, I have been told by a credible source, is a person with an ‘ax to grind,’” Ashy wrote. “Why were there a majority of medical type officers on the jury…? And why didn’t the accuser leave that evening when the other women left?” referring to other guests at the impromptu party at the Wilkerson home.
Franklin’s explanatory letter to the secretary of the Air Force mentioned some of the same matters, which he said caused him to doubt Wilkerson’s guilt after what he said was a three-week post-trial clemency review.
But at least one military lawyer said he found Franklin’s analysis lacking.
“He sounds like a defense counsel arguing his side,” said one longtime Air Force lawyer not connected with the case, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss the case.
Franklin, at the March 22 hearing in England, said he was aware that his decision would be unpopular and probably end his career, according to a transcript reviewed by Stars and Stripes,
“I mean I thought about it, but I can’t take it into account because I’ve got to do the right thing, and I am a man of integrity,” Franklin told the hearing. “And in every case, I’m going to make the right call based on the facts and based on what I see, regardless of any impacts to me. Regardless of any impacts to the Air Force.”
Franklin, commander of 3rd Air Force, based in Germany, was asked whether the decision had drawn criticism from his superiors. Franklin said, no, that he had phoned Gen. Philip Breedlove, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, to inform him of his decision and likely upcoming press coverage and that Breedlove had then informed Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff.
“So I let him know what I did and he let General Welsh know, and I got nothing but support from them,” Franklin said. “They knew that I would look at this closely and I would make the right call, so whatever that call would be they were going to support me.”