An Air Force Academy confidential informant could have spun tales to save his own skin during a classmate's court-martial, defense attorneys said during an appeal hearing Thursday for former cadet Stephan Claxton.
Claxton was convicted in 2012 on charges including unlawful sexual conduct and assault over a 2011 incident in an academy dorm. He won a second chance in the courtroom last year when the military's top appeals court ordered a hearing to determine if the case against Claxton was poisoned by the academy's failure to disclose that its star witness was confidential informant Eric Thomas.
Claxton's civilian attorney, Frank Spinner, said knowing Thomas was an informant would have helped Claxton beat the charges because it would have shown that Thomas had something to gain from Claxton's conviction.
"Cadet Thomas knew he was facing disenrollment for misconduct," Spinner told Air Force judge Col. Natalie Richardson.
Spinner said that Thomas needed to see Claxton convicted so agents of the Office of Special Investigations would push academy brass to keep him in school.
The status of Thomas has been under scrutiny since a 2013 Gazette investigation found that the informant was abandoned by authorities during proceedings to remove him from the school.
The academy has contended that Thomas was not an informant during the 2011 incident involving Claxton. Thomas, who later kicked out of the academy for misconduct relating to the Claxton case, has argued that he was under secret orders from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations to tail Claxton in order to catch him in the act of sexual assault.
Claxton got a six-month sentence and was kicked out of the academy.
Thomas was grilled by Spinner Thursday for his work as a spy in the cadet wing .
"If we're trying to connect saving my own skin and bringing down Claxton, that's not necessarily the case," Thomas testified.
Thomas said he was ordered to tail Claxton starting in 2010 and broke academy rules on the night of the 2011 incident involving Claxton, including leaving the academy without permission and allowing a woman in his dorm room.
Thomas has contended that he racked up demerits in an effort to battle an academy crime wave, but was abandoned by agents of the Office of Special Investigations just before a hearing that ended with his dismissal.
"Every piece of demerit I had was given by my own statement," Thomas said.
He testified, though, that he spied on Claxton for altruistic reasons, saying he wanted to root out sexual assault at the school.
Thomas was preceded on the stand by a pair of OSI agents who differed with the former cadet's timeline on when he became an informant.
Former special agent Tyler Rube testified that Thomas joined forces with OSI after the Claxton incident. He said Thomas benefited from the relationship after leaders were asked to "slow-roll" paperwork that would eventually see him kicked out.
Rube also said leaders at the academy were aware of Thomas' role as an informant long before Claxton's trial.
Lawyers representing the Air Force admitted they failed to disclose Thomas' status at Claxton's trial but claim Claxton wasn't harmed.
"It was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt because of the strength of the government's case," Air Force attorney Richard Schrider told Richardson.
Testimony is expected to continue Friday with Thomas' main OSI handler, former agent Brandon Enos on the stand. Getting a ruling on Claxton's case could take weeks.
Richardson will write up her findings, but judges at the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals will ultimately decide what happens to Claxton. Their options include upholding Claxton's conviction, ordering a fresh court-martial or dismissing the case outright.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240