A sordid account involving illicit sex in uniform will be aired this week in an austere courtroom at Fort Bragg, N.C., and the results could tip the scales in a debate in Congress over the future of the military justice system.
The defendant, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, is accused of carrying on a three-year affair in Afghanistan with a junior officer and sexually assaulting her on two occasions, among other crimes. He is only the third Army general to face court-martial in more than a half-century.
But after two years of investigation and preparation, the prosecution is in disarray. The Army's lead counsel, Lt. Col. William Helixon, abruptly stepped down last month after confiding to superiors and the general's defense team that he had qualms about the case.
Meanwhile, the general's lover-turned-accuser — an Army captain 17 years his junior — faces questions about her credibility. Although she has testified that Sinclair twice forced her to perform oral sex against her will, she has been unable to recall the dates and has given conflicting accounts to investigators and colleagues.
At an evidentiary hearing in 2012, she said Sinclair threatened to kill her and her family if she told anyone about their relationship. Two other officers testified that they provided nude photos to Sinclair, part of other charges involving his conduct with five women.
Sinclair's defense team argues text messages show that a loving relationship between the general and the now 34-year-old Army captain fractured when she became jealous of his interactions with his wife and another female soldier.
Sinclair is scheduled to return to the dock Thursday. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges. The Army has set aside most of the month for the court-martial.
The Army's handling of the case is being watched closely in Washington, where the Senate is scheduled to soon consider a bill that would strip military commanders of their long-standing authority to prosecute sexual assaults and other major crimes. The bill, introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would give uniformed prosecutors the power to decide whether to press charges. Leaders at the Pentagon have lobbied fiercely against the bill, arguing that commanders need to retain legal authority to enforce order and discipline in their units.
The prosecution of Sinclair has been seen as a test case of the Army's willingness to hold senior leaders accountable for sex crimes.
In the past, advocates for victims of sex crimes in the military have argued that commanders have been too quick to dismiss their accounts of rape and abuse and too reluctant to press charges against fellow officers. Sinclair's lawyers assert that the opposite is true in his case. They said the evidence against him is flimsy but that senior Army leaders are afraid they will be portrayed as covering up for one of their own if they drop the most serious charges.
"In a sense, I understand the fear that they have, and that it is driving their lack of doing the right thing, but that is not how the system is supposed to work," said Richard Scheff, a civilian attorney who is representing Sinclair. "It's supposed to be driven by evidence and by what is fair and just, not fear."
In court filings, Scheff has said that Helixon, the former lead prosecutor, bluntly told him in a Feb. 9 phone conversation that he had come to the conclusion that the sexual assault charges against the general should be dropped, but senior Army leaders had insisted the case go forward because of "politics and outside pressures."
For Sinclair's wife, Rebecca, there is an overlooked issue in the case — the toll of a decade of war on military couples, many of whom have found themselves in a repeated pattern of deployments, homecomings and moves.
"I'm not excusing my husband's infidelity,'' she told the Associated Press in 2012. "I'm just trying to understand it, and I'm trying to get conversations started so that people can look behind and see the bigger issue."
She will not attend the trial. "It's a painful thing for her," said Scheff, her husband's attorney.
Contributing: Chicago Tribune