FORT BRAGG, N.C. – The trial of an Army general accused of sexual assault moved into uncharted legal territory Tuesday when the judge dismissed the jury to allow the defense time to hammer out a new plea deal with the military.
While the highly unusual decision gives Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair a second chance to negotiate the dismissal of the most serious charges, he appears certain to face an inglorious end to a nearly 30-year career spanning service in three wars. His lawyers said it could take weeks to finalize an agreement.
Experts in military law said Judge Col. James Pohl is seeking a just and innovative solution for a courtroom situation that doesn’t fit prior case law.
“No one has ever seen anything like this before, but it seems like the right thing to do,” said retired Maj. Gen. Walt Huffman, a Texas Tech University law professor who previously served as the Army’s top lawyer. “This case was already unusual in so many respects.”
Judge Pohl reviewed newly disclosed emails Monday and said he found the appearance of “unlawful command influence” in Fort Bragg officials’ rejection of a plea bargain with the general in January. He declined to dismiss the charges outright, but allowed Sinclair’s lawyers to negotiate with Army officials not previously involved with the case.
If they fail to reach a plea deal, the trial would resume. But with the jury sent packing, it’s unlikely that could happen quickly.
The jury of five two-star generals was seated last week, traveling from as far away as Korea and Alaska. They appeared confused as Pohl sent them home, saying they may or may not be asked to return.
“Sometimes there are twists and turns you can’t anticipate,” Pohl told the jurors.
Sinclair, 51 and the former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, is accused of twice forcing a female captain to perform oral sex on him in Afghanistan in 2011 during a three-year extramarital affair. He has admitted to adultery, which is a crime in the military, but denied assaulting the woman.