By Micheal Biesecker
FORT BRAGG, N.C.: An Army general who admitted to inappropriate relationships with three subordinates was described as a selfless leader by fellow officers Wednesday during testimony that the defense hopes will lead to a lenient sentence.
Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair broke down in tears during the reading of a letter his wife wrote and again when he read a statement to the judge apologizing for his behavior.
Sinclair’s sentencing hearing was expected to wrap up in the afternoon after both sides deliver closing arguments. It’s not clear, though, how long it will take the judge to decide on Sinclair’s sentence.
Sinclair faces a maximum of more than 20 years in prison and dismissal from the Army, but will likely wind up with a far less severe punishment.
The sentence can’t exceed terms in a sealed agreement between defense lawyers and military attorneys. The judge will make his own decision before unsealing the document, and Sinclair will receive whichever is the more lenient punishment.
The general admitted he mistreated a captain under his command during a three-year affair and had improper relationships with two other women. He also pleaded guilty to adultery — a crime in the military — as well as using his government-issued credit card to pay for improper trips to see his mistress and other conduct unbecoming an officer.
The 51-year-old general had been accused of twice forcing the female captain to perform oral sex during the three-year affair, but the sexual assault charges were dropped as part of the plea deal.
When the letter from his wife was read, Sinclair buried his head in his hands, appeared to cry and dabbed his eyes with two tissues.
In the letter, Rebecca Sinclair says she hasn’t fully forgiven her husband but doesn’t want the Army to punish him and his family further with a significant reduction to his pension and other benefits. The judge will decide whether to dismiss Sinclair from the Army or allow him to retire at a reduced rank.
“Believe me when I tell you that the public humiliation and vilification he has endured are nothing compared to the private suffering and guilt that he lives with every day,” writes Rebecca Sinclair, who hasn’t attended her husband’s hearings.
Sinclair broke down at several points as he read a statement to the judge, pausing to collect himself. He apologized to his family and the women with whom he admitted inappropriate relationships.
“I’ve been frustrated and angry, but I don’t have to look any further than the mirror for someone to blame,” he said. He also pointed out that Wednesday was two years to the day since his primary accuser came forward.
Defense lawyers finished calling character witnesses earlier in the day.
Col. Kenneth Kelly, who’s currently based in Tokyo, served under Sinclair in Iraq and praised his leadership.
“He was selfless. He was always more concerned about what his soldiers were doing than his bosses,” Kelly said.
Prosecutors have countered some of the witnesses by asking them whether a true leader would ask subordinates for nude pictures — behavior that Sinclair has admitted to.
Prosecutors also called a final rebuttal witness on Wednesday, Lt. Col. David Leach, who served under Sinclair in Afghanistan.
“It is extremely disappointing to me that my commander, who had talked to me about discipline, could have engaged in this sort of prolonged conduct,” Leach said.
Asked if he would serve with Sinclair again, Leach said he would not.
Sinclair’s sentencing comes as the military and Congress grapple with the problem of sex crimes in the ranks. To better protect victims, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved legislation last week to ban the “good-soldier defense” to ensure that a defendant’s fate is determined solely by evidence. The House has signaled it won’t take up the bill immediately.
The Army’s case against Sinclair started to crumble as questions arose about whether his primary accuser had lied in a pre-trial hearing. It was further thrown into jeopardy last week when Judge Col. James Pohl said the military may have improperly pressed ahead with the trial to send a message about its determination to curb sex crimes. The decision was supposed to be decided solely on the evidence, not its broader political implications. The judge’s decision initiated new plea negotiations.