FORT BRAGG, N.C. — With the Pentagon under increased scrutiny over revelations of rampant rape and sexual misconduct within the ranks, opening statements began Friday in a rare court-martial of an Army general — believed to be the most senior member of the U.S. military to face trial on sex assault charges.
Prosecutors will make their case against Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, accused of sexually assaulting a captain under his command with whom he had a three-year affair. His defense lawyers portray him as the victim of an overzealous military under intense political pressure to make an example of him.
Sinclair, 51, stood ramrod straight before a judge Thursday and pleaded guilty to three charges that could send him to prison for up to 15 years. It was a remarkable admission sure to end the military career of a man once regarded as a rising star among the Army's small cadre of trusted battle commanders.
Sinclair still faces five other charges stemming from the claims of a female captain nearly 20 years his junior who says the general twice forced her to perform oral sex. But by pleading guilty to the lesser charges, Sinclair's lawyers believe they will strengthen his case at trial by potentially limiting some of the salacious evidence prosecutors can present. It will ultimately be up to the judge to determine what, if any, limitations to place on the evidence as the case unfolds.
The former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted of the sexual assaults.
Asked by judge Col. James Pohl Thursday whether he clearly understood the consequences of his admissions, the decorated veteran of five combat deployments answered in a clear voice, with no emotion: "Yes sir."
Pohl accepted Sinclair's plea after nearly three hours of often intimate questions about the married general's flirtations and dalliances with four women — three military officers and one civilian.
Repeatedly, Sinclair turned to his lawyer before answering, prompting the judge to say: "It's important that you tell me the truth as you recall it."
"You'll get nothing but the truth from me," the general replied.
The general pleaded guilty to having improper relationships with two female Army officers and to committing adultery with a third, the captain who was his longtime mistress. Adultery is a crime in the military.
When asked by the judge if he was aware of the prohibition against senior officers having relations with subordinates, Sinclair replied, "Oh, yes sir."
He then described how the affair began during a war tour in Iraq when his primary accuser asked if he wanted to watch a movie. Once they were alone in his quarters, the general said the young officer made sexual advances that he initially rebuffed.
Pohl asked how Sinclair knew the woman wanted to have sex with him.
"Probably when she took her top off, sir," the general said with a nervous chuckle.
Sinclair's wife of nearly 30 years has remained with him through his legal troubles and served as a staunch public defender, though she was not in the courtroom Thursday. The couple has two children.
The general also admitted to violating orders by possessing pornography and to conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. After he knew he was under investigation, Sinclair also admitted deleting nude photos from a personal email account sent by a civilian woman with whom he was childhood friends.
Sinclair's lawyer Richard Scheff said by admitting guilt on the charges for which there is the strongest evidence, the married father of two hoped to narrow the focus of the trial to charges that rely heavily on the testimony and credibility of his former mistress.
In pleading guilty to possessing a cache of porn on his laptop in Afghanistan, a violation of orders for soldiers in the socially conservative Muslim country, Sinclair's defense hopes to limit the ability of prosecutors to use those graphic images to shock the jury. The jury is made up of five generals because in a court-martial an officer can only be judged by his superiors.
Prosecutors also have evidence Sinclair asked two female officers to send nude photos of themselves to him. By conceding his guilt, the defense lessens the relevance of the messages they exchanged. The primary accuser is the only one alleging assault.
"What remains of this case really rests on the damaged and tattered credibility of an individual who's not been truthful, who has lied before the court, who has given inconsistent statements," Scheff said outside the courthouse.
Lawyers for Sinclair have painted the woman as a scorned lover who only reported the sexual assault allegations after the general refused to leave his wife.
The defense will present evidence that the female captain lied under oath during a pretrial hearing in January about her handling of old iPhone containing messages between her and the general. The captain testified that on Dec. 9, shortly after what she described as a contentious meeting with prosecutors, she rediscovered the iPhone stored in a box.
However, a defense expert's examination suggested the captain powered up the device more than two weeks before the meeting with prosecutors.
The Associated Press generally does not identify those who say they were sexually assaulted.