FORT BRAGG, N.C. – An Army general who admitted to improper relationships with three subordinates appeared to choke up Monday as he told a judge that he’d failed the female captain who had leveled the most serious accusations against him.
Hours later, she took the stand to testify about how she can’t trust people and fears her superiors are always going to take advantage of her in the aftermath of the three-year affair.
As he pleaded guilty, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair’s voice halted when telling the judge why he was pleading guilty to mistreating her in a deal that included the dropping of sexual assault charges.
“I failed her as a leader and as a mentor and caused harm to her emotional state,” Sinclair said, his voice catching as he read from a statement. He asked the judge for a break and took a long drink of water before continuing to read.
“I created a situation over time that caused her emotional harm,” Sinclair said, seated in his dress blue uniform. It was the first public show of regret or sadness for a 27-year veteran who had betrayed little emotion in court hearings over the past year.
The judge accepted Sinclair’s guilty pleas on several lesser charges in a deal that includes the dropping of sexual assault counts and two others that may have required him to register as a sex offender.
The sentencing hearing for Sinclair, the former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, began Monday afternoon and was expected to last until at least the next day. As many as two-dozen witnesses could be called and Sinclair’s lawyer said he will either give a statement or testify.
Ultimately, the judge will give Sinclair a sentence that can’t exceed terms in the agreement struck between defense lawyers and military attorneys over the weekend, but has not been made public. The legal agreement is likely to require a punishment far less severe than the maximum penalties of 21½ years in prison and dismissal from the Army.
Sinclair’s lawyer suggested he might walk out of court a free man, but without a career and perhaps with hundreds of thousands of dollars less in pension benefits.
“I hope he is permitted to retire at a reduced rank and can go home to his family,” defense attorney Richard Scheff said before court started Monday.
Sinclair, 51, had been accused of twice forcing the female captain under his command to perform oral sex during the three-year extramarital affair. The Associated Press does not generally identify those who say they were victims of sexual assault.
The married general pleaded guilty earlier this month to having improper relationships with three subordinate officers, including the captain. He also pleaded guilty to adultery, which is a crime in the military.
The most serious accusations went to trial, but the court-martial was halted after the military judge found evidence that there may have been improper influence in a decision to reject a previous plea deal. The new deal was then struck, including Sinclair’s admission that his treatment of the captain was “unwarranted, unjustified and unnecessary,” broke military law and mentally harmed her.
Sinclair also admitted on Monday to abusing a government credit card he used while traveling to visit his mistress, using indecent language to demean female officers and contacting the accuser after being told not to.
After his plea, prosecutors opened the sentencing by calling the accuser back to the stand. She remains on active duty and was granted an immunity deal with prosecutors in exchange for testimony.
She said her career has suffered because she constantly worries her supervisors are talking about her behind her back and trying to undermine her.
“I’m very guarded now. I have a hard time trusting people. I have a very hard time feeling safe,” said the woman, who cried during testimony and occasionally dabbed her eyes with a tissue between questions.
She never looked at Sinclair, but looked directly at prosecutors as she was questioned. When the lawyers would talk directly to the judge between questions, she looked down at her hands.
The female officer’s mother testified that since making the accusations, her daughter bought a 95-pound dog for protection and sleeps on her couch in her four-bedroom home with a loaded gun nearby because she is scared.
In court on Monday, Sinclair denied ever putting his hands on the captain in anger. He said about a year into the affair, he began to realize that the captain wanted a complete relationship, while he was not going to leave his wife. Sinclair said the captain was “emotionally invested in a way I was not.”
The general said he started using tactics to try to keep the captain from revealing a relationship that broke military law both because Sinclair was married and a superior officer.
He lied and said he planned to divorce his wife to keep the captain hoping for something more. And he started flirting with other women in hopes that the captain would leave quietly, he said.
Sinclair said his actions were “not based on my honest feelings for her, but were based on my fear of exposure.”
Prosecutors have not spoken outside court since the plea deal was disclosed over the weekend.
The Army’s case against Sinclair started to crumble as questions arose about whether his primary accuser had lied in a pre-trial hearing. It was further thrown into jeopardy last week when Judge Col. James Pohl said the military may have improperly pressed ahead with the trial to send a message about its determination to curb rape and other widespread misconduct. Under the military code of justice, the decision was supposed to be decided solely on the evidence, not its broader political implications.
Capt. Cassie L. Fowler, the military lawyer assigned to represent the accuser’s interests, declined to talk about the case outside court Monday. She referred questions to another attorney who advised the woman, retired Navy Rear Admiral Jamie Barnett.
A statement issued by Barnett said that the woman stands by her assault accusation.
Barnett said that Sinclair “literally sabotaged her career by altering her orders to keep her under his command and refusing her many requests to be transferred. She was literally trapped and bullied by one of the highest ranking officers in the United States Army.”
Michael Biesecker contributed to this report from Raleigh, N.C.
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP