RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A U.S. Army general accused of sexual assault was set to plead guilty to three lesser charges Thursday in a move that his lawyer says will strengthen his position going into trial.
Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair plans to enter the plea before opening statements scheduled for the morning in his court martial at Fort Bragg. The primary accuser in the case is a female captain who says Sinclair twice forced her to perform oral sex and threatened to kill her family if she told anyone about their three-year affair.
Sinclair, 51, still faces five charges including sexual assault in his trial before a jury of five two-star generals. The former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted on the most serious charges.
Sinclair's lawyer Richard Scheff said the general will plead guilty to having improper relationships with two other female Army officers and to committing adultery with his mistress, which is a crime in the military. He will also admit to violating orders by possessing pornography in Afghanistan and to conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman.
Scheff said in an interview that his client is taking responsibility for his actions, but also strengthening his legal position. The general had previously entered pleas of not guilty to all eight charges.
By admitting guilt on the three charges for which there is the strongest evidence, the married father of two narrows the focus of the upcoming trial to charges that rely heavily on the testimony and credibility of his former mistress.
By pleading guilty to possessing a horde of porn on his laptop, for example, Sinclair's defense hopes to limit the ability of prosecutors to use those graphic images to shock the jury. By admitting to improper relationships with the two other women, whom Sinclair asked to send nude photos of themselves, the defense lessens the relevance of the messages they exchanged in relation to the remaining charges. The primary accuser is the only one alleging that any assault took place.
"The government now has a big problem," Scheff said in an email. "It took pathetically weak assault charges and put a fancy wrapper around them. We just tore the wrapper off. The prosecution team no longer gets to distract us with salacious details about acts that aren't even criminal in the civilian world. All they're left with is a crime that never happened, a witness who committed perjury, and a pile of text messages and journal entries that disprove their claim."
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 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.