General to admit guilt on 3 counts; denies assault

MICHAEL BIESECKER Associated Press Published:

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- A U.S. Army general accused of sexual assault was set to plead guilty to three lesser charges Thursday in a move that his lawyer says will strengthen his position going into trial.

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair plans to enter the plea before opening statements scheduled for the morning in his court martial at Fort Bragg. The primary accuser in the case is a female captain who says Sinclair twice forced her to perform oral sex and threatened to kill her family if she told anyone about their three-year affair.

Sinclair, 51, still faces five charges including sexual assault in his trial before a jury of five two-star generals. The former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted on the most serious charges.

Sinclair's lawyer Richard Scheff said the general will plead guilty to having improper relationships with two other female Army officers and to committing adultery with his mistress, which is a crime in the military. He will also admit to violating orders by possessing pornography in Afghanistan and to conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman.

Scheff said in an interview that his client is taking responsibility for his actions, but also strengthening his legal position. The general had previously entered pleas of not guilty to all eight charges.

By admitting guilt on the three charges for which there is the strongest evidence, the married father of two narrows the focus of the upcoming trial to charges that rely heavily on the testimony and credibility of his former mistress.

By pleading guilty to possessing a horde of porn on his laptop, for example, Sinclair's defense hopes to limit the ability of prosecutors to use those graphic images to shock the jury. By admitting to improper relationships with the two other women, whom Sinclair asked to send nude photos of themselves, the defense lessens the relevance of the messages they exchanged in relation to the remaining charges. The primary accuser is the only one alleging that any assault took place.

"The government now has a big problem," Scheff said in an email. "It took pathetically weak assault charges and put a fancy wrapper around them. We just tore the wrapper off. The prosecution team no longer gets to distract us with salacious details about acts that aren't even criminal in the civilian world. All they're left with is a crime that never happened, a witness who committed perjury, and a pile of text messages and journal entries that disprove their claim."

The case against Sinclair, believed to be the most senior member of the U.S. military ever to face trial on sexual assault charges, comes as the Pentagon grapples with a troubling string of revelations involving rape and sexual misconduct within the ranks. Influential members of Congress are also pushing to remove decisions about the prosecution of sex crimes from the military chain of command.

The defense will present evidence at trial 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. 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 Associated Press generally does not identify those who say they were sexually assaulted.

The captain testified that on Dec. 9, shortly after what she described as a contentious meeting with prosecutors, she rediscovered an old iPhone stored in a box at her home that still contained saved text messages and voicemails from the general. After charging the phone, she testified she synced it with her computer to save photos before contacting her attorney.

However, a defense expert's examination suggested the captain powered up the device more than two weeks before the meeting with prosecutors. She also tried to make a call and performed a number of other operations.

Three additional experts verified those findings.

During a pretrial hearing, a top Pentagon lawyer testified that the lead prosecutor assigned to the case for nearly two years, Lt. Col. William Helixon, had urged that the most serious charges against Sinclair be dropped after he became convinced the captain had lied to him about the cell phone. Helixon was overruled by his superiors and then removed from the case last month, after suffering what was described as a profound moral crisis that led to his being taken to a military hospital for a mental health evaluation.

The case now heads to trial with a new lead prosecutor, Lt. Col. Robert Stelle, who said in court this week he doesn't care what his predecessor thought about the weakness of the evidence.

It is highly unusual for an officer of flag rank to face criminal prosecution, with only a handful of cases in recent decades. Under military law, an officer can only be judged at trial by those of superior rank -- ensuring that Sinclair's jury will be comprised of five major generals.

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Follow Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker at www.Twitter.com/mbieseck .