General's sentence in sex case called a 'shock,' 'beyond disappointing'

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair received no jail time or demotion in rank despite having a long-standing affair with a captain under his command and inappropriate relationships with three junior soldiers.

Ellen Ozier/AP
Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair (l.), who admitted to inappropriate relationships with three subordinates, arrives at the courthouse with attorney Ellen Brotman (r.) for sentencing at Fort Bragg, N.C., on Thursday. General Sinclair was reprimanded and docked $20,000 in pay, avoiding jail time, in one of the US military's most closely watched courts-martial.

The outcome of a trial that was widely regarded as a litmus test for how the US military handles sexual assault in its ranks has caused an outcry among lawmakers and advocates of victims of sexual assault – as well as many long-serving military officers.

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, accused of sexual assault, on Thursday received what was widely regarded as a light sentence, consisting of a $20,000 fine and an official reprimand.

The general had pleaded guilty to having a long-standing affair with a captain under his command and having inappropriate relationships with three other junior soldiers. Earlier in the week the Army dropped sexual assault charges, citing what the judge (an Army colonel) reportedly believed were questions about unreliability in the victim's testimony and “undue command influence” in moving the charges forward.

“We thought it was a tremendously fair sentence,” says Josh Zeitz, a communications specialist on the general’s defense team. 

Some lawmakers begged to differ. “I was shocked to hear that he received no jail time or reduction in rank,” said Rep. Niki Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts, in a statement. “It is clear that Brig. Gen. Sinclair abused his authority and perpetuated a toxic military culture that is accepting of unprofessional, inappropriate and criminal behavior.”

Although he pleaded guilty to “maltreatment of a subordinate, having inappropriate relationships with and soliciting illicit pictures from junior female officers, possessing pornography, misuse of a credit card and using derogatory language,” Representative Tsongas noted, he did not receive any jail time or reduction in rank as part of the sentence.

The verdict also caused ripples among retired military officers. Although charges of sexual assault were dropped, Sinclair should have been held accountable for the sexual relationships with subordinates to which he pleaded guilty, says retired Lt. Col. Gary Bloomberg, a former Special Forces officer and a West Point graduate.

“Bad day for the Army,” Mr. Bloomberg says, adding that, given the inappropriate relationships to which Sinclair admitted, the verdict “is a joke from a perception perspective.”

Sinclair’s sentence was “beyond disappointing,” said retired Rear Adm. Jamie Barnett, now a partner with the law firm of Venable LLP, who represented the accuser on a pro bono basis. “Clearly, the Army judge does not understand the nature of cruelty, maltreatment of subordinates, and sexual abuse by a superior in command,” he added in a statement. “This sentence can only be interpreted as the Army viewing what General Sinclair did as just not that bad.” 

Advocates for victims of sexual assault said that the light sentence may reignite the push for commanders to be stripped of the ability to decide whether or not to prosecute sexual assault cases. 

“The defense’s argument that [Sinclair] was only prosecuted because of ‘undue command influence’ provides strong argument that the decisions to prosecute should be removed from the accused’s chain of command and assigned to professional prosecutors,” said Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group, in a statement. The case “provides a clear example of why 9 out of 10 sexual assault victims never report their attacks.” 

While the prosecution asked for no jail time, it did request that Sinclair be kicked out of the military. The judge – known in military parlance as the "convening authority" – did not grant that request, instead allowing Sinclair to submit his retirement papers.

In the coming weeks, a board will decide whether Sinclair can retire at his current rank as a brigadier general, or whether he will be demoted to the rank of his “last honorable service” before being permitted to retire.

Sinclair’s lawyers say that they expect him to be demoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Sinclair’s current salary is more than $12,000 a month, while lieutenant colonels earn $8,600 per month. Officers with 28 years of service, as Sinclair has, are paid a pension worth 75 percent of their salary.

Sinclair’s defense lawyers argued that had he been kicked out of the military, his family would have unfairly suffered. What’s more, being “falsely accused of rape is a punishment that far exceeds the crime,” Mr. Zeitz says. “People can disapprove of the conduct and people can disagree with the sentence,” he adds, “but they should try to walk a mile in his shoes.” 

The defense team also argued that other general officers have committed “worse” crimes and received lighter sentences, Zeitz says. 

“There’s the case of a brigadier general who had affairs with two other women and physically assaulted one of them. His case was dealt with administratively and he’s still serving,” he adds.

Critics point out that, perhaps, this points to some flaws in the military justice system, and that generals may be treated differently for military crimes than enlisted soldiers – known in the halls of the Pentagon as “different spanks for different ranks.”

They add that the Army would not have been punishing his family by denying Sinclair retirement benefits but rather that he chose to risk punishing them himself when he engaged in the behaviors to which he pleaded guilty.

The question remains what lessons the US military will take from the outcome of the case. 

Since the charges of sexual assault were dropped, “Some in the military still seem to view this as having been a consensual affair,” said Mr. Barnett. “No sexual advances by a superior officer towards a junior officer or soldier under his or her command can be viewed as consensual.”

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