Sinclair case puts spotlight on military justice
Although the sexual misconduct trial of Brig. Gen. Jeff Sinclair has concluded, the military remains on trial over how it investigates and prosecutes sexual assault cases.
People in Fayetteville on Friday said they think the judge, Col. James Pohl, gave Sinclair a lenient punishment for his adultery (a crime in the military), mistreatment of several officers and misuse of his government travel card for personal travel.
Meanwhile, those in the military law community and advocates for the victims of sexual assault are watching to see whether Congress will cite the Sinclair case as reason to strip military commanders of their power over military prosecutions.
The acquittal this week of a Naval Academy midshipman on sexual assault charges also has drawn criticism from advocates.
Sinclair, the former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, was fined $20,000 and ordered to pay $4,160 in restitution for his credit card use. He is to be reprimanded for his misconduct.
He could have been jailed for up to 18 months or dismissed from the military. Dismissal would have cost Sinclair all his retirement benefits.
Instead, Sinclair will be allowed to retire, although likely at a reduced rank.
An Army judge issued the sentence following Sinclair’s guilty pleas this month to the lesser charges he faced and dismissal of the most-serious allegations.
Those included accusations that Sinclair sexually assaulted his mistress of three years, a captain 17 years his junior.
She was on his staff in late 2011 as their rocky relationship neared its end during the end of a deployment in Afghanistan.
Sinclair vehemently has denied physical abuse.
On Friday, soldiers who were asked about the case wanted no part of a discussion on Sinclair’s sentence. Some 15 service members declined comment.
Two women working in an establishment near Fort Bragg agreed to speak off the record and without any mention of their employer.
“We hear stories all the time. We’re big on, ‘Let the punishment fit the crime,’” said one of them, a 40-year-old. “There have been many soldiers who have had incidents. I don’t consider anything he did less than adultery. There have been more enlisted soldiers put out (of the service) for less than what he did.”
Her co-worker said Sinclair deserved jail time, and should have been stripped of his rank and forced into retirement.
“He broke many laws as a brigadier general knowing full well he broke military laws,” she said. “Never mind what he did to that poor woman (the victim). Never mind what he did to other women.”
Preston Brown, 54, is a homeless veteran, and said he served seven years in the Army, making the rank of sergeant.
“I think he should have got more,” he said. “He took advantage of women under him, and he’s a general. He took advantage of those young women under his command and threatened that one. He should have got a lot more.”
Patty Murray, 40, of Fayetteville, called the sentence “very lenient.”
When told Sinclair is likely to retire with a demotion to lieutenant colonel, Murray said: “That doesn’t seem like much of a drop. Seems like he got off for the money he owes and credit card fraud.”
In her way of thinking, Crystal Moran believes Sinclair “got off pretty easy.”
Moran, 37, runs the downtown Great American Emporium.
“There have been other instances where you’ve had enlisted soldiers, and they (the Army) would go every which way they could to pretty much (hang them out to dry),” she said. “Enlisted soldiers are held up to a higher standard than higher-up officials. This was just a slap on the wrist.
“When it comes to higher-up officials,” Moran said, “I think there’s a lot of leniency.”
Some in Congress think the military has been lenient on sexual misconduct and is trying to change how the armed services prosecute crimes, particularly sexual assault.
Military leaders oppose the most radical proposal, which would erase a commander’s authority to order a court-martial and instead leave decisions on whether to try a case to independent prosecutors.
The idea was defeated in the U.S. Senate but may be revived in the House.
The Sinclair and Naval Academy cases may change some minds, said Eugene Fidell, a military law expert who teaches at Yale and who has called for independent prosecutors.
“I think these two cases taken together should smoke out some additional votes” in the Senate, Fidell said.
“I can see it coming,” said Peter Yellin, a former Marine Corps prosecutor who teaches at Sandhills Community College in Moore County. “Once Congress starts meddling, they’re going to meddle.”
Yellin thinks prosecution decisions should remain with the commanders.
Military defense lawyer Greg T. Rinckey, a former Army prosecutor, was not surprised by the Sinclair sentence and questions whether it is appropriate to jail a soldier for committing adultery.
He doesn’t think that the Sinclair outcome or the Naval Academy case will persuade Congress to take court-martial authority away from commanders.
“They’re going to keep pushing, but at the end of the day, this is the military justice system, where the commander, I think, has to have some level of authority,” Rinckey said. “The commander, at the end of the day, is responsible for everything the unit does and fails to do, and is responsible for the discipline of the unit.”
Paula Coughlin promised to keep pushing.
Perhaps best known as the Navy lieutenant who blew the whistle on sexual misconduct among Navy and Marine aviators at their annual Tailhook Association convention in 1991, Coughlin sits on the board of directors of Protect Our Defenders, an organization that advocates for victims of sexual misconduct in the military.
“This is just more fodder for the argument that the chain of command has to be removed from the whole military justice proceedings,” Coughlin said. “And whether you want to rally behind it because some general almost went to jail for something he didn’t do, or whether you want to rally behind it because 99percent of the victims in the military never get a fair shake at justice – either way, it just keeps the conversation alive. And it keeps the conversation even going a little deeper.”
U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, has already cited the Sinclair case in promoting her legislation to remove commanders from the decisions.
“On display was a military legal system, apparently eager to show it was getting tough on sexual misconduct cases, that instead bungled the case,” she said in an opinion piece published on CNN’s website Thursday afternoon after Sinclair was sentenced.
“We don’t want commanders feeling that they need to appear tough on sexual assault by bringing charges that aren’t warranted – just as we don’t want them sweeping them under the rug,” she wrote. “This is another example of what happens when a system is reliant on people who are not legal experts, rather than on trained independent prosecutors.”