FORT BRAGG: Judge dismisses Sinclair jury, plea possible - WNCN: News, Weather

Judge dismisses jury in Sinclair case; plea possible

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Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair was charged in 2012 with criminal counts that include twice physically forcing a woman to perform oral sex. Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair was charged in 2012 with criminal counts that include twice physically forcing a woman to perform oral sex.
FORT BRAGG, N.C. -

Attorneys for an Army general charged with sexual assault saidTuesday that they have decided to try to renegotiate a plea bargain with a newset of military officials after the judge determined that the case may havebeen improperly influenced by political concerns from the Pentagon.

Judge Col. James Pohl sent the jury of generals back to theirduty stations around the world after defense lawyers for Brig. Gen Jeffrey A.Sinclair announced their decision. The two sides now enter negotiations to tryto resolve the case. A new general with new legal advisers would have to bebrought in to approve any new deal. Figuring out who that person would be anallowing time for the deal to be considered could take several weeks, evenmonths.

"There are other issues that have come up in thistrial," Pohl told the jurors as he dismissed them. "Sometimes thereare twists and turns you can't anticipate."

Pohl had declined to dismiss the charges outright on Monday. Buthe reviewed newly disclosed emails in Sinclair's case and said he found theappearance of "unlawful command influence" in Fort Bragg officials'decision to reject a plea bargain with the general in January. Sinclair'sdefense team had offered the deal a month earlier. The decision to reject theplea mean the case went to court-martial.

The twist came with the Pentagon under heavy pressure fromCongress and beyond to combat rape and other sex crimes in the military. 

Under the military code of justice, the decision was supposed tobe decided solely on the evidence, not its broader political implications.

But Pohl said the emails showed that the military officials whorejected the plea bargain had discussed a letter from the accuser's lawyer. Theletter warned that allowing the general to avoid trial would "send thewrong signal." 

Sinclair, 51 and the former deputy commander of the 82ndAirborne Division, is accused of twice forcing a female captain to perform oralsex on him in Afghanistan in 2011 during a three-year extramarital affair. Hehas admitted to the affair but denied assaulting the woman. 

The defense has portrayed the woman as a liar who concocted theallegations after she saw emails between Sinclair and another woman. 

Sinclair, believed to be the highest-ranking U.S. militaryofficer court-martialed on sexual assault charges, appeared upbeat as he leftthe courthouse Tuesday morning, joking with the military police officers whoguard the door.

Lead defense attorney Richard Scheff said Sinclair would notagree to plead guilty to any charges involving sexual assault or any chargesthat would result in his being required to register as a sex offender.

"He did not sexually assault anybody," Scheff said."He did not threaten anybody. He's not maltreated anybody. We'd love toresolve the case. But if we can't, we look forward to our day in court and hisvindication."

Even though the defense team appeared optimistic it could reacha deal, Scheff said it might still be weeks before the case is resolved.

Lt. Col. Robert Stelle, the lead prosecutor, declined tocomment.

In the December plea deal, Sinclair offered to plead guilty tosome of the lesser charges in exchange for the Army dropping the sexual assaultcharges, but he was turned down.

Sinclair's plea offer was discussed in emails among ahigh-ranking Washington-based Army lawyer, the prosecutors and the commandinggeneral overseeing the case.

The judge said he doesn't think the whole case was tainted, justthe decision on a plea agreement. The judge also criticized prosecutors for notgiving defense lawyers the emails sooner: "The only reason we are in thisconundrum is because of the government's late notice."

Last week, Sinclair pleaded guilty to three lesser chargesinvolving adultery with the captain and improper relationships with two otherfemale Army officers. Those charges could bring 15 years in prison. A trialthen began on the remaining sexual assault charges, with a potential sentenceof life in prison.

Now, with Tuesday's decision, the defense may ask Pohl towithdraw Sinclair's guilty pleas in favor of whatever new deal can be hashedout with the Army.

Sinclair's accuser came out against the December plea bargain onthe sexual assault charges. In a letter sent by her Special Victims Counsel,Capt. Cassie L. Fowler, Fowler suggested that the proposal deal would"have an adverse effect on my client and the Army's fight against sexualassault."

"Acceptance of this plea would send the wrong signal tothose senior commanders who would prey on their subordinates by using theirrank and position, thereby ensuring there will be other victims like my clientin the future," Fowler wrote.

Though prosecutors deny any consideration was given to Fowler'scomments about the potential fallout, the emails turned over to the defenseSaturday show they did discuss her assertions. One top military lawyer at FortBragg quoted her letter and said he found Fowler "very preachy."

It was Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, as commander of Fort Bragg, whomade the final decision on whether to accept Sinclair's plea offer.

Testifying from Afghanistan by telephone, Anderson said Mondaythat he didn't thoroughly read Fowler's letter. The only thing he weighed inrejecting the deal was that the accuser wanted her day in court, he said. 

But Anderson's testimony appeared to be contradicted by a Dec.20 email he sent to a military lawyer. "I have read the letter and made mydecision," Anderson wrote.

Fowler said Monday that the courtroom maneuvering over herletter was "nothing more than an attempt to take the focus off thegeneral's gross misconduct."

Regardless of whether the prosecution gives the new plea offer alot of consideration or a little, the ultimate decision on whether to accept afinal version of the offer would rest with a new convening authority – a generalunder the advice of legal advisors who haven't already been involved in thecase. Just figuring out who that general will be could take weeks. Then, if theplea deal is rejected the court-martial could not resume quickly because the juryof generals are back at their duty stations.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.

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