Is military better handling its sexual assault problem? Congress is watching.

This week saw Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair on trial for sexual assault, and news of another case broke: A top Army prosecutor has been suspended after being accused of groping a military lawyer.

Ellen Ozier/Reuters/File
US Army Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair leaves the courthouse at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on Tuesday.

In the past 50 years, the Army has court-martialed only two generals. Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair became the third when his trial began in Fort Bragg, N.C., this week.

He has already admitted and pleaded guilty to a considerable number of serious charges, including pressuring female officers under his command to send him nude photos; carrying on an affair with a subordinate; and possessing pornography.

He has pleaded not guilty to sexual assault, an alleged crime that was brought forward by the young officer with whom he was having the affair.

Army officials have not commented on the possible punishments for the charges for which he has admitted guilt, but the general’s defense team has said that it expects the punishment would range from fines to retirement at a reduced rank.

Still, having one star revoked could potentially allow Sinclair to collect roughly 70 percent of his base salary for the rest of his life. 

The trial comes against the backdrop of efforts in Congress to strip military commanders of their power to prosecute sexual assault cases.

While legislation calling for such a move failed to overcome a filibuster this week, its author, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York, has promised that more colleagues will support her efforts in the future if the military does not mend its ways.

“Many people said to me, ‘Kirsten, I’m going to watch this. If it doesn’t get better within the next six months, I’m with you next time,’ ” Senator Gillibrand said Thursday. 

The Sinclair case, then, is being closely watched by those who are wondering if the US military really is capable of policing its own.

Under pressure to more robustly address the issue, the Army last month announced that it was removing nearly 600 soldiers from what it calls “positions of trust,” for being convicted of crimes that range from sexual assault to child abuse.

Advocacy groups for victims of sexual assault say they will also be monitoring another case that broke this week: that of a top Army prosecutor, who has been suspended from his job after being accused of groping a military lawyer who worked for him. 

Up until he was suspended, Lt. Col. Joseph “Jay” Morse was the top lawyer in charge of the Army’s special-victims counsels, who have responsibility for prosecuting sexual assault cases. 

“This reads like an article from ‘The Onion,’ " said Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy organization, in a statement. “Unfortunately, there is absolutely nothing funny about it.”

And so even as Gillibrand’s bill failed to pass by a vote of 55 to 45 on Thursday, advocacy groups were renewing calls for it to be reintroduced, adding that they are not impressed that Morse has been suspended amid sexual assault allegations.

“There will always be bad actors in any class of people or segment of society, including prosecutors,” Ms. Parrish added. “The problem is that commanders who today control the military justice system are inherently conflicted, often biased, and not trained or competent to handle issues involving the prosecution of sexual assault.”

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