Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair leaves the courthouse following a day of motions on Tuesday at Fort Bragg, N.C. The Army general is set to plead guilty to three lesser charges Thursday in a move that his lawyer says will strengthen his position going into trial. (James Robinson / AP via The Fayetteville Observer)
FORT BRAGG, N.C. — A jury of five two-star generals was seated Wednesday for the court-martial of an Army general believed to be the highest ranking officer to face sexual assault charges.
But the closely watched trial will unfold with lingering questions about the accuser’s credibility and without the prosecutor who led the case for nearly two years.
The prosecutor, Lt. Col. William Helixon, had urged that the most serious charges against Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair be dropped because they rely solely on the woman’s accusation that he twice forced her to perform oral sex and he believes she lied under oath about crucial evidence in the case.
But those above the seasoned sex crimes prosecutor overrode him, rebuffing an offer from Sinclair to plead guilty to lesser charges.
It is extremely rare for such a high-ranking military officer to face a jury. Under the military justice system, members of the panel must be senior in rank to the accused — dictating Sinclair’s jury of major generals.
Opening statements in the case are set for Thursday.
Helixon was replaced last month after he broke down in tears over the case and a superior officer took him to a military hospital for a mental health evaluation, according to testimony.
Sinclair’s defense lawyers allege the top brass moved forward because they were worried about the political fallout that would result if the charges were dropped.
Following a daylong hearing Tuesday, a judge ruled the case should go to trial.
“No offense to Lt. Col. Helixon, but I don’t care what he thinks and neither should the court,” Lt. Col. Robert Stelle, who replaced Helixon as lead prosecutor, told the judge.
Sinclair’s lawyer suggested that the Army was sacrificing Helixon’s career and reputation to pursue a flawed case.
“The government undertook a vicious character assault against someone they previously called their ‘rock star’ sex crimes prosecutor, because he was the only Army leader with the integrity to stand up to politics,” said Richard Scheff, the lead defense lawyer. “People should be rewarded for honesty, not punished for it.”
The case against Sinclair, believed to be the most senior member of the U.S. military ever to face trial for sexual assault, comes as the Pentagon grapples with a troubling string of revelations involving rape and sexual misconduct within the ranks. Influential members of Congress are also pushing to remove decisions about the prosecution of sex crimes from the military chain of command.
Sinclair, the former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne, has pleaded not guilty to eight criminal charges including forcible sodomy, indecent acts, violating orders and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. He faces life in prison if convicted of the sexual assault charges.
Lawyers for the married father of two have say he carried on a three-year extramarital affair with a female captain under his command during tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The admission of an affair will almost certainly end his Army career.
In pretrial hearings, prosecutors have painted Sinclair as a sexual predator who abused his position and threatened to kill the accuser and her family if she told anyone of their relationship.
The Associated Press does not publicly identify the alleged victims of sexual assaults.
Helixon, who was described as dealing with “personal issues,” wasn’t called to testify Tuesday.
But among those called to the stand was Brig. Gen. Paul Wilson, a high-ranking military lawyer stationed at the Pentagon.
Wilson said another general sent him on the morning of Feb. 8 to check on Helixon, who was then staying in a room at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Washington. He said he arrived to find Helixon appearing drunk and suicidal.
“He was in the midst of a personal crisis. He was crying. He was illogical,” Wilson testified. “I truly believed if he could have stepped in front of a bus at the time, I think he would have.”
The lead prosecutor had become convinced the accuser lied under oath when she testified in January about evidence collected from a cellphone.
The captain testified that on Dec. 9, shortly after what she described as a contentious meeting with prosecutors, she rediscovered an old iPhone stored in a box at her home that still contained saved text messages and voicemails from the general. After charging the phone, she testified she synced it with her computer to save photos before contacting her attorney.
However, a defense expert’s examination suggested the captain powered up the device more than two weeks before the meeting with prosecutors. She also tried to make a call and performed a number of other operations.
Three additional experts verified those findings.
Wilson testified that Helixon was so distraught that the accuser had lied to him he took the prosecutor to the emergency room of a nearby military hospital at Fort Belvfor a mental health evaluation.
Though a psychiatrist who interviewed the prosecutor declined to admit him for treatment, Wilson said he told Helixon’s immediate superior back at Fort Bragg that the prosecutor was no longer fit to handle the case.
“He was not fit for any kind of duty. I would not have trusted him to drive a car,” Wilson said.
In an unusual move, the defense called Sinclair’s lead lawyer to the stand. Scheff testified that Helixon had confided in him that he was concerned the case had become too politicized.
“He said everyone on his team had reasonable doubt,” Scheff said. “He said, ‘I’m going to be the guy who gets hurt in this. I’m going to have a problem.’”
The defense introduced a December letter the military lawyer assigned to represent the accuser sent to Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, the commander at Fort Bragg. Under military law, it was up to Anderson to decide whether or not to accept Sinclair’s plea offer.
Writing on behalf of the accuser, Capt. Cassie L. Fowler urged Anderson to reject the deal, suggesting that to do otherwise would “have an adverse effect on my client and the Army’s fight against sexual assault.”
“Acceptance of this plea would send the wrong signal to those senior commanders who would prey on their subordinates by using their rank and position, thereby ensuring there will be other victims like my client in the future,” Fowler wrote.