FORT, BRAGG NORTH CAROLINA – A U.S. Army general who had a three-year affair with a captain and had two other inappropriate relationships with subordinates was reprimanded and docked $20,000 in pay Thursday, avoiding prison time in one of the U.S. military’s most closely watched trials in recent memory.
Legal experts, a women’s group and members of Congress condemned the sentence as shockingly light. The case has played out as the U.S. military has been rocked by reports of rampant sexual abuse among its ranks.
Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair was believed to be the highest-ranking U.S. military officer ever court-martialed on sexual assault charges, but earlier this week those charges were dropped when he pleaded guilty to inappropriate relationships.
Sinclair, 51, smiled and hugged his two lawyers in the courtroom.
“The system worked. I’ve always been proud of my army,” he said afterward. “All I want to do now is go north and hug my kids and my wife.”
The case unfolded with the Pentagon under heavy pressure to confront what it has called an epidemic of rape and other sexual misconduct in the ranks.
Retired Rear Adm. Jamie Barnett, a lawyer who helped represent the captain, said the woman was disappointed with the sentence.
“A sentence doesn’t take away any of the pain and anguish that she has endured,” Barnett said.
AP generally does not identify those who say they were sexually assaulted.
The case started to crumble as Sinclair’s lawyers hammered away at the woman’s credibility and raised questions about whether Sinclair’s commander improperly pressed ahead with a trial because of political considerations — namely, a desire to show the army’s resolve to combat sexual misconduct.
Earlier this year, the lead prosecutor came to believe the woman lied under oath at a pre-trial hearing about when she found an old iPhone containing messages between her and the general. Within weeks, the prosecutor was found drunk and suicidal in a Washington hotel, distraught over a superior’s refusal to drop the sexual assault charges, according to testimony. He was later removed from the case.
As part of the plea deal, Sinclair’s sentence could not exceed terms in an agreement between defense lawyers and military attorneys that called for Sinclair to serve no more than 18 months in jail, but Judge Col. James Pohl’s punishment was much lighter.
The judge did not explain specifically how he came to the sentence, and prosecutors did not immediately comment.
Sinclair’s fine breaks down to $5,000 a month for four months. He earns about $12,000 a month, according to testimony earlier in the week.
Retired Lt. Col. Gary D. Solis, who teaches law at West Point and Georgetown University, called the ruling lenient.
“I can’t believe it,” said Solis, who served 26 years of active duty in the Marine Corps and tried hundreds of cases as a military judge. “I know Judge Pohl to be one of the best judges in the army judicial system, but . . . this is an individual who should not be a general officer. He should have gone to jail and dismissed from the army.”
In closing arguments, prosecutors argued Sinclair should be thrown out of the army and lose his military benefits, while the defense said that will harm his innocent wife and children the most.
Defense attorney Richard Scheff said Sinclair will retire from the military.
Scheff said the case against Sinclair was one of pure adultery, which is a crime in the military.
Prosecutors did not ask the judge to send Sinclair to jail, even though the maximum penalty he faced on the charges to which he pleaded guilty was more than 20 years.
The judge could have also dismissed Sinclair from the army, which would have likely wiped out his Veterans Administration health care and military retirement benefits.
The general also pleaded guilty to adultery and using his government-issued credit card to pay for trips to see his mistress and other conduct unbecoming an officer.
Sinclair had been accused of twice forcing the female captain to perform oral sex during their affair.