By Chris Carroll
Stars and Stripes
ARLINGTON, Va. — The former head of the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office was acquitted in civilian court Wednesday of assault and battery against a woman who said he had grabbed her buttocks, but Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski could still face military discipline.
After two days of testimony in Arlington County Circuit Court, a seven-member jury took just over an hour to deliver a not guilty verdict in the case, which drew widespread attention after Krusinski’s May 5 arrest near a strip of Washington-area bars.
The case came on the heels of a series of scandals that led critics to charge the military was not adequately addressing a growing problem of sexual assault in the ranks, including furor over an Air Force general’s decision to overturn a verdict against an officer convicted of aggravated sexual assault.
Misdemeanor charges of sexual battery against Krusinski were dropped in July, but the regular misdemeanor assault charge carried the same potential penalty of up to a year in jail and a fine of $2,500.
Jury forewoman Alison Kutchma, from Falls Church, Va., said the jury had sympathy for the woman, but felt the evidence simply did not prove the charges. Kutchma said she didn’t want to discuss specific weaknesses of the case, fearing it might be hurtful to the accuser.
“It’s very clear that a lot of lives were impacted,” Kutchma said. “But that’s not what we were asked to look at.”
Krusinski, who left the court without speaking to the media, now faces the prospect of action by the Air Force. Among the possibilities is a court-martial, because the principle of double jeopardy does not apply when the military justice system takes up a case formerly prosecuted in civilian court.
Attorneys and investigators from the Air Force, who wanted jurisdiction in the case but were rebuffed by Arlington County prosecutors, have been monitoring the case closely.
“Now that the civilian trial is complete, we will separately assess the facts and evidence in the case and determine if there are applicable disciplinary or administrative actions that are appropriate,” Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley said Thursday in an email.
But military justice experts predicted Krusinski would not face another trial in military court for the incident.
Retired Maj. Gen. John Altenburg Jr., who served as deputy judge advocate general of the Army and now practices law in Washington said the Air Force may take into consideration what he called unfair treatment of Krusinski as his case proceeded.
“I think [a military trial is] highly unlikely,” Altenburg said. “For one thing, it appears there was an overreaction by the media to this case, and it led to a lack of presumption of innocence by the public.”
It’s not unusual of for the military to prosecute a case — particularly involving a serious charge like murder — that civilian prosecutors dropped, or that had been overturned in a civilian court, Altenburg said. But the Krusinski case, a misdemeanor, is unlikely to trigger such a response, he said.
Attorney Greg Rinckey, who represents military defendants, agreed that a follow-on prosecution is unlikely. But if it did happen, it would likely have to be initiated by Air Force brass, and could raise the question of unlawful command influence.
“If I were his defense attorney in that case that’s what I’d say,” he said. “I’d argue this is unlawful command influence, and they’re pursuing this only because of his former position in the Air Force and because what he was accused of makes the military look bad.”
A lesser response from the Air Force, including a career-ending letter of reprimand, is far more likely, Rinckey said.
In closing arguments, Krusinski’s defense attorney, Barry Coburn, reeled off a litany of what he said were inconsistencies in the testimony of state witnesses. He focused particularly on testimony from the alleged victim about her response to Krusinski’s alleged grope.
The accuser had previously testified that she hit Krusinski three times with her fist to defend herself. But a number of other witnesses said she followed and repeatedly hit a passive Krusinski with her phone, apparently causing profuse bleeding.
Coburn also had suggested that Krusinski’s staggering, drunken condition could have resulted in incidental contact that the woman misinterpreted.
In her closing argument, the prosecutor, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Cari Steele said that the woman’s response after the alleged assault was not the issue. She pointed to another witness who said she had been groped by Krusinski as evidence the contact was not accidental.
“There is no doubt that he touched her and there is no doubt she didn’t like it,” Steele said. “She felt totally violated.”
Rinckey said testimony from many witnesses that Krusinski had been heavily intoxicated in public — and his attorney’s suggestion he may have unintentionally lurched into the woman — could indicate Krusinski will face some consequences from the Air Force.
“If he was drunk in public to extent he can’t control himself physically, as an officer, that’s a problem,” Rinckey said.
Altenburg argued that the outcome of the Krusinski case takes steam out of the argument put forth by advocates of sexual assault victims and critics in Congress that the military can’t police itself when it comes to sexual assault.
“These cases are always very complicated,” he said. “And people have been taking cheap shots at the military and saying we can’t handle this issue, but the fact that this happened (in civilian court) shows how difficult these cases are.”