Trial begins for Army general facing sex charges amid questions about accuser's credibility

The Associated Press

Brig. Gen. Paul Wilson leaves the courthouse after testifying in pretrial motions in the case of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, Tuesday, March 4, 2014, at Fort Bragg, N.C. Less than a month before Sinclair's trial on sexual assault charges, the lead prosecutor broke down in tears Tuesday as he told a superior he believed the primary accuser in the case had lied under oath. (AP Photo/The Fayetteville Observer, James Robinson)

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By MICHAEL BIESECKER, Associated Press

FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — The closely watched sex assault trial for an Army general is finally set, but it will unfold with lingering questions about the accuser's credibility and without the prosecutor who led the case for nearly two years.

The prosecutor, Lt. Col. William Helixon, had urged that the most serious charges against Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair be dropped because they rely solely on the woman's accusation that he twice forced her to perform oral sex and he believes she lied under oath about crucial evidence in the case.

But those above the seasoned sex crimes prosecutor overrode him, rebuffing an offer from Sinclair to plead guilty to lesser charges.

It is extremely rare for such a high-ranking military officer to face a jury. Under the military justice system, members of the panel must be senior in rank to the accused — ensuring that Sinclair will be judged by a jury of generals.

That jury was expected to be seated in a courtroom at Fort Bragg on Wednesday. Opening statements were set for Thursday.

Helixon was replaced last month after he broke down in tears over the case and a superior officer took him to a military hospital for a mental health evaluation, according to testimony.

Sinclair's defense lawyers allege the top brass moved forward because they were worried about the political fallout that would result if the charges were dropped.

Following a daylong hearing Tuesday, a judge ruled the case should go to trial.

"No offense to Lt. Col. Helixon, but I don't care what he thinks and neither should the court," Lt. Col. Robert Stelle, who replaced Helixon as lead prosecutor, told the judge.

Sinclair's lawyer suggested that the Army was sacrificing Helixon's career and reputation to pursue a flawed case.

"The government undertook a vicious character assault against someone they previously called their 'rock star' sex crimes prosecutor, because he was the only Army leader with the integrity to stand up to politics," said Richard Scheff, the lead defense lawyer. "People should be rewarded for honesty, not punished for it."

The case against Sinclair, believed to be the most senior member of the U.S. military ever to face trial for sexual assault, comes as the Pentagon grapples with a troubling string of revelations involving rape and sexual misconduct within the ranks. Influential members of Congress are also pushing to remove decisions about the prosecution of sex crimes from the military chain of command.

Sinclair, the former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne, has pleaded not guilty to eight criminal charges including forcible sodomy, indecent acts, violating orders and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. He faces life in prison if convicted of the sexual assault charges.

Lawyers for the married father of two have say he carried on a three-year extramarital affair with a female captain under his command during tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The admission of an affair will almost certainly end his Army career.

In pretrial hearings, prosecutors have painted Sinclair as a sexual predator who abused his position and threatened to kill the accuser and her family if she told anyone of their relationship.

The Associated Press does not publicly identify the alleged victims of sexual assaults.

Helixon, who was described as dealing with "personal issues," wasn't called to testify Tuesday.

But among those called to the stand was Brig. Gen. Paul Wilson, a high-ranking military lawyer stationed at the Pentagon.

Wilson said another general sent him on the morning of Feb. 8 to check on Helixon, who was then staying in a room at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Washington. He said he arrived to find Helixon appearing drunk and suicidal.

"He was in the midst of a personal crisis. He was crying. He was illogical," Wilson testified. "I truly believed if he could have stepped in front of a bus at the time, I think he would have."