New plea negotiations for Sinclair could take weeks
By PAUL WOOLVERTON | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. | Published: March 12, 2014
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — The sexual assault court-martial of Brig. Gen. Jeff Sinclair was postponed indefinitely Tuesday morning because his lawyers have begun new plea-bargain negotiations with Army prosecutors.
It likely will be weeks before the defense team and prosecutors return to the Fort Bragg courthouse to enter a guilty plea or continue with the trial, said Richard Scheff, Sinclair's lead lawyer.
"We'd love to resolve the case. But if we can't, we look forward to our day in court and his vindication," Scheff told reporters Tuesday after court recessed.
Sinclair, who is a former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, is accused of committing forcible oral sodomy on an Army captain near the end of his three-year adulterous affair with her. A conviction could send the 51-year-old combat veteran to life in prison.
The trial began Friday before a panel of five jurors, all of them two-star generals, with hours of testimony from the 34-year-old captain. She related a rocky relationship that started with consensual sex while they were on deployment to Iraq in 2009 and ended, according to her, with Sinclair forcing her to perform sex acts in late 2011 during a deployment in Afghanistan.
She reported the affair and assault allegations to Sinclair's supervisor in March 2012.
Sinclair's lawyers say the captain made up the assault allegations to shield herself from prosecution for adultery. Sinclair is a married father of two, and adultery is a crime in the military.
Sinclair also faces other allegations of wrongdoing, including unwanted sexual contact, sexual activities in public or semi-public areas, maltreatment of the captain, improper use of taxpayer money to arrange trysts with her, and threatening to kill her and her family.
The trial was halted Monday. Sinclair's lawyers told the judge they received new evidence over the weekend of unlawful command influence over a Fort Bragg general's decision several months ago to reject plea negotiations with Sinclair's lawyers and proceed with the court-martial.
Based on that evidence, the judge, Col. James Pohl, gave Sinclair a new opportunity to negotiate a plea bargain. Scheff announced in court Tuesday morning that Sinclair would submit to prosecutors a new plea offer and said time is needed to consider it. Pohl told the jurors they could go home but said they may be called back to continue hearing the case.
In interviews, Sinclair's team said their client will not budge on two issues during plea negotiations: He will not plead guilty to any sexual assault charge, and he won't plead guilty to a crime that would require him to register as a sex offender.
Asked by a reporter if the prosecutors' position has had "a noticeable softening," Scheff answered, "Yes."
"None of our positions have changed, and what that means is that other positions are changing from other people," Scheff said. "If we can resolve this case, that's great. If we can't, then we're back to try it and we're back to defend the general vigorously. He did not sexually assault anybody. He didn't threaten anybody. He's not maltreated anybody.''
Sinclair pleaded guilty Thursday to adultery and some of the allegations outlined in eight charges against him. His guilty pleas were made without any deal with the prosecutors and can be withdrawn.
As plea negotiations continue, the Army must pick a new commander to review the case and make a decision whether to accept a plea offer.
The previous commander who served as Sinclair's court-martial convening authority, Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson of the 18th Airborne Corps, was judged by Pohl on Monday to have been potentially influenced by a letter from the accuser's lawyer that said the Army would be punished politically in Congress if he accepted Sinclair's plea.
Anderson must not handle the new plea offer, Pohl said.
Sinclair's case has been under scrutiny in light of reports that sexual misconduct is pervasive in the military and allegations that some military leaders are lenient in these types of cases.
After Air Force generals drew attention for overturning two sexual assault convictions, Congress in December stripped commanders of their authority to overturn court-martial convictions.
On Monday, another bill passed the Senate 97-0 that aims to address sexual misconduct. Some of its provisions would hold commanders more responsible for how they handle sexual assault cases. The new laws eliminate a "good soldier defense" from being presented in the guilt-innocence phase of a trial and would give victims more say in whether the military or civilian authorities prosecute their cases.
Last week, the Senate defeated a bill advanced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would have taken decision-making power away from court-martial convening authorities in incidents of serious crimes, including sexual assault. That power would be left to experienced prosecutors.
The military resisted her bill, and it drew opposition from the president.
Gillibrand, in a statement last week, criticized the Senate for rejecting her bill.
"We know the deck is stacked against victims of sexual assault in the military, and today, we saw the same in the halls of Congress," she said.
Her spokesman said Tuesday that her office is continuing to monitor the Sinclair case.
"Without knowing each detail of the evidence of the case, we can agree we must have blind justice," she said in a statement. "The scales should not be tipped in either direction to favor the victim or the accused. We need cases to move forward based solely on the evidence and judged on the merits. This is a basic fundamental value."