Army general pleads guilty to 3 lesser charges; maintains innocence on sex assault counts

The Associated Press

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair leaves the courthouse following a day of motions, 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 and ALLEN G. BREED, Associated Press

FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — In his immaculate blue dress uniform, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair stood ramrod straight before a judge Thursday and pleaded guilty to three charges that could send him to prison for up to 15 years.

It was a remarkable admission sure to end the military career of a man once regarded as a rising star among the U.S. Army's small cadre of trusted battle commanders.

Sinclair, 51, still faces five other charges stemming from the claims of a female captain nearly 20 years his junior who says the general twice forced her to perform oral sex. But by pleading guilty to the lesser charges, Sinclair's lawyers believe they will strengthen his case at trial by potentially limiting some of the salacious evidence prosecutors can present.

The former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted of the sexual assaults. Opening statements were expected Friday.

Asked by judge Col. James Pohl whether he clearly understood the consequences of his admissions, the decorated veteran of five combat deployments answered in a clear voice, with no emotion: "Yes sir."

Pohl accepted Sinclair's plea after nearly three hours of detailed and often intimate questions about the married general's flirtations and dalliances with four women — three military officers and one civilian.

The case against Sinclair, believed to be the most senior member of the U.S. military ever to face trial on sexual assault charges, comes as the Pentagon grapples with revelations of rampant rape and sexual misconduct within the ranks. The U.S. Senate on Thursday blocked a bill that would have stripped senior military commanders of their authority to prosecute rapes and other serious offenses in the ranks. The bill was firmly opposed by the Pentagon.

The general pleaded guilty to having improper relationships with two female Army officers and to committing adultery with a third, the captain who was his longtime mistress. Adultery is a crime in the military.

Sinclair's wife of nearly 30 years has remained with him through his legal troubles and served as a staunch public defender, though she was not in the courtroom Thursday as he admitted guilt. The couple has two children.

The general also admitted to violating orders by possessing pornography and to conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. After he knew he was under investigation, Sinclair also admitted deleting nude photos from a personal email account sent by a civilian woman with whom he was childhood friends.

Sinclair's lawyer Richard Scheff said before the plea that his client was taking responsibility for his actions, but also strengthening his legal position. By admitting guilt on the three charges for which there is the strongest evidence, the married father of two hoped to narrow the focus of the trial to charges that rely heavily on the testimony and credibility of his former mistress.

In pleading guilty to possessing a cache of porn on his laptop in Afghanistan, a violation of orders for soldiers in the socially conservative Muslim country, Sinclair's defense hopes to limit the ability of prosecutors to use those graphic images to shock the jury.

Prosecutors also have evidence Sinclair asked two female officers to send nude photos of themselves to him. By conceding his guilt, the defense lessens the relevance of the messages they exchanged. The primary accuser is the only one alleging assault.

"What remains of this case really rests on the damaged and tattered credibility of an individual who's not been truthful, who has lied before the court, who has given inconsistent statements," Scheff said outside the courthouse. "Frankly, I think it's an embarrassment that this case will go forward. But it's going forward, and we'll have not guilty verdicts at the end."