European edition, Saturday, June 2, 2007

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany — A Spangdahlem airman was found not guilty Friday of a charge that he raped a drunken staff sergeant, who claimed to be unwillingly involved in a threesome.

On the third day of a court-martial, a military jury convicted Airman Christopher D. Hicks of a lesser charge of committing an indecent act — a criminal offense unique to the military.

If they did not believe a rape occurred, jury members had the option of finding him guilty of the alternative charge. Hicks, an equipment operator with the 52nd Civil Engineering Squadron, admitted to having sex with the noncommissioned officer while another female airman watched on Sept. 24 at his apartment in Bitburg.

Engaging in such a sexual act, even between consenting adults, is considered an indecent act in the military.

After deliberating for 45 minutes on Friday, the jury sentenced Hicks to six months in prison, reduction to the lowest pay grade, forfeiture of $650 per month for six months, and a bad-conduct discharge.

That decision could come under scrutiny later.

The sentencing phase took an unexpected turn when Hicks’ defense lawyer took the unusual step of requesting a mistrial.

Capt. Michael Carson issued the motion during the trial when the staff sergeant took the stand and accused Hicks of posting a message on an Internet blog that criticized her.

The trial has attracted considerable attention on various Internet forums since Airman 1st Class Ashley Rains pleaded guilty at a separate court-martial to two charges of indecent acts for her role in the incident.

Rains, a life support specialist with the 22nd Fighter Squadron, was sentenced to four months in prison and reduced to the lowest pay grade after admitting to performing a sex act on the staff sergeant and watching while the staff sergeant and Hicks had sex moments later.

A military forum on has attracted tens of thousands of views, according to statistics on the Web site. Most of the posts are sent anonymously, but one post author claims to be Hicks. Defense lawyers argued there is no proof Hicks made such a post and that the staff sergeant’s accusation could unfairly influence punishment.

Judge Gordon Hammock, an Air Force colonel, called the comments made by the staff sergeant “inflammatory and improper,” but denied the mistrial request and instructed the jury members to disregard that part of the testimony.

Hicks could appeal the judge’s denial of the mistrial.

Much of the debate about the trial on the Internet has focused on whether the staff sergeant consented. That was also the focus of the closing arguments.

Air Force prosecutor Capt. Michael Felsen told the court that the staff sergeant was awake during the sex but feigned sleep because she was too drunk to fight back. She testified that she was afraid of what they might do to her if she tried to stop them.

Carson, the defense attorney, argued the staff sergeant had no reason to be afraid and could have simply said, “No.”

The staff sergeant testified on Thursday that she had 10 to 20 drinks that night and met up with Rains and Hicks at a pair of pubs in Speicher. She had met Rains before but did not know Hicks.

Later in the evening, they went to the apartment. Soon after they arrived, the staff sergeant took off her shoes, vomited and went to the master bedroom to lie down. She later awoke to Rains and Hicks having sex with her, she testified.

Air Force special agents who investigated the case said Hicks gave conflicting accounts on what happened. He told investigators at one point that he thought the staff sergeant was unconscious when he started and figured she would wake up. One agent testified during the trial that Hicks told him “he felt guilty.”

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