Sinclair's sexual misconduct trial has a charged backdrop
FORT BRAGG, N.C. — He called her "my panda" and "my baby." She called him "papa panda sexy pants."
They had a three-year affair in Afghanistan, Iraq, Germany and the United States, but they were hardly equals. She was a junior officer assigned to his staff. He was a one-star general.
Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair now stands accused of sexually assaulting the woman, a captain, who says he forced her to engage in oral sex after she tried to break off their affair.
The general is also charged with threatening to kill the captain and her family, sexually harassing other female officers, abusing his government credit card, and possessing alcohol and pornography in a war zone.
The lurid details have spilled out in court hearings at a time when the military is under intense pressure to curb rampant sexual abuse in the ranks. Last month Congress passed, and the president signed, legislation to bolster prosecution of sexual assault in the military.
The Sinclair case has focused attention on the military's attempts to punish sexual misconduct. It is also a test of claims by many military defense lawyers that high-ranking commanders get a pass for offenses that result in serious charges against lower-ranking service members.
Sinclair's attorneys say pledges by President Obama and senior Pentagon officials to crack down on sexual misconduct have made it impossible for the 27-year Army veteran to get a fair trial. One defense brief cites a comment from the president:
"If we find out somebody is engaging in this stuff, they've got to be held accountable — prosecuted, stripped of their position, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period."
Such statements compelled the military to charge Sinclair and could prejudice prospective military jurors, the defense has alleged.
Women's groups have demanded an overhaul of the current military justice system in which top commanders, invariably male, wield considerable influence over whether and how to bring charges.
Critics have also demanded changes in the way defense lawyers question alleged rape victims on their sexual histories. A female cadet at the U.S. Naval Academy who said she was raped by fellow cadets was asked during a preliminary hearing how far she opened her mouth during oral sex. That outraged women's groups.
The captain in the Sinclair case was repeatedly asked by defense lawyers about details of her sex life.
"This case will show whether the good old boy network still prevails," said Anita Gorecki, a former Army Judge Advocate General officer who represents military personnel.
Sinclair has admitted to the affair but said it was consensual.
Gorecki said no sexual liaison between a junior officer and a commander can possibly be consensual given the unchallenged authority of senior officers.
"There's no way out for the female, who's in an untenable position," Gorecki said. "You're on the job 24 hours a day. You can't just quit. Who do you go to for help? Your commander?"
The captain revealed the affair — and her own violation of military regulations prohibiting adultery — to a major general who is a close friend of Sinclair's. The captain, who is single, was 29 when the affair began. Sinclair, 51, is the married father of two boys.
In addition to sodomy and adultery charges, Sinclair is charged with using his rank and authority to "coerce and compel" the captain to maintain a sexual relationship and threatening "to damage or ruin her military career if she ended their sexual relationship."
Sinclair has mounted an aggressive public defense since he was ordered home from Afghanistan in May 2012 and charged that September. He has hired civilian lawyers, along with a New York public relations firm that runs a website defending him.
The site says the Army has demonized Sinclair: "They want you to believe that he's a porn-addicted, alcoholic rapist."
The general's wife, Rebecca Sinclair, has defended her husband and blamed the stress of multiple combat deployments. "He made some mistakes, and they were painful ones," she wrote in an email.
She added, "The political climate and many of the decisions challenge my faith in a fair system."
The defense contends that the captain falsely accused Sinclair of forcing her into oral sex in order to avoid adultery charges that would ruin her career.
At a preliminary hearing in November 2012, the captain said, Sinclair became enraged when she tried to break off the affair. She said Sinclair told her "I belonged to him" and forbade her to have sex with her boyfriend.
The woman said that in 2009, Sinclair threatened to kill her and her family if she exposed the affair. But she testified that she continued to have consensual sex with him for two years afterward.
They also exchanged sexually explicit emails and text messages.
"My goodness, baby, you know how to turn me on," she wrote in one message. In another, she called Sinclair "my beautiful, handsome, remarkable man" and told him, "I love you with all that I am."
The captain also testified that Sinclair was insulting and condescending toward her and other female soldiers. She said that when she made a mistake, he told her, "You're just a girl," and that he used profanities to describe other female soldiers.
When she challenged him, she testified, he replied with a vulgarity, telling her he could say whatever he wanted because he was a general.
Last week Sinclair's lawyer accused the captain of perjury after she testified at a motions hearing about a cellphone she said she had recently found containing more messages from Sinclair. The defense said the captain had failed to turn in the phone promptly and lied about when she discovered it.
The judge authorized the defense to examine the phone and several others owned by the captain.
Before the proliferation of military sexual abuse cases in recent years, some military law experts say, Sinclair may well have been allowed to quietly plead guilty to adultery and leave the service.
Historically, generals and admirals accused of misconduct have been dealt with out of the spotlight and given administrative punishments, said Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale.
But because of the political climate and the sensational nature of the allegations against Sinclair, Fidell said, "it just wasn't possible for this case to be swept under the rug."