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General’s court-martial is thrown into jeopardy

March 10, 2014

FORT BRAGG, North Carolina (AP) — The sexual assault case against an Army general was thrown into jeopardy Monday when the judge said the military may have improperly pressed ahead with a trial to send a message about its determination to curb rape and other widespread misconduct.

Judge Col. James Pohl refused to dismiss the charges against Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair but offered the defense another chance to plea-bargain the case down with a different set of military officials.

The twist comes with the Pentagon under heavy pressure from Congress and beyond to combat what the military says is an epidemic of rape and other sex crimes. On Monday, in fact, the Senate was expected to approve legislation cracking down on misconduct.

Pohl reviewed newly disclosed emails in Sinclair’s case and said he found evidence of unlawful command influence in Fort Bragg officials’ decision to reject a plea deal before the trial began late last week.

Under the military code of justice, the decision was supposed to be decided solely on the evidence, not its broader political implications.

The defense has until Tuesday morning to decide whether to submit a plea bargain proposal again or allow the court-martial to proceed.

Sinclair, the 51-year-old former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, is accused of twice forcing a female captain to perform oral sex on him in Afghanistan in 2011 during a three-year extramarital affair. He has admitted to the affair but denied assaulting the woman.

He is believed to be the highest-ranking U.S. military officer ever court-martialed on sexual assault charges. He could get life in prison if convicted.

Richard Scheff, the general’s lead defense lawyer, would not say how he might proceed.

“This is an unprecedented situation. It’s a mess created by the government. It wasn’t created by us. We have so many options, we don’t even know what they all are,” he said.

Military prosecutors had no comment after the hearing.

Before the trial, Sinclair had offered to plead guilty to some of the lesser charges in exchange for the Army dropping the sexual assault charges, but he was turned down.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate appeared to be headed toward an overwhelming vote Monday in favor of big changes in the military justice system to deal with sexual assault, including scrapping the nearly century-old use of the “good soldier defense” to raise doubts that a crime has been committed.

Currently, those accused of wrongdoing can cite their good military records.

Meanwhile, the Senate approved 97-0 a military-justice bill that would scrap the nearly century-old use of the “good soldier defense” to raise doubts that a crime has been committed. Currently, those accused of wrongdoing can cite their good military records.

The Pentagon has estimated that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted in 2012, based on an anonymous survey. Many victims are unwilling to come forward despite new measures to curb abuse, the military says.

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Associated Press writer Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.

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

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