General on Trial for Sex Abuse as Senate Blocks Attempt to Reform Pentagon's Sexual Abuse Policies
March 7, 2014
Al Jazeera America & Michael Biesecker / Associated Press
The Senate blocked a bill Thursday that would have stripped senior US military commanders of their authority to prosecute rapes and other serious offenses in the ranks -- and instead put prosecutorial power into the hands of military trial lawyers who would operate outside of the military chain of command. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s bill would have given independent military trial lawyers powers to try cases of sexual assault.
Senate Shoots Down Military Sexual Assault Reform Bill
Al Jazeera America
(March 6, 2014) -- The Senate blocked a bill Thursday that would have stripped senior US military commanders of their authority to prosecute rapes and other serious offenses in the ranks -- and instead put prosecutorial power into the hands of military trial lawyers who would operate outside of the military chain of command. The vote on Thursday was 55–45, short of the 60 necessary to move ahead on the legislation.
The Pentagon's leadership vigorously opposed the measure, arguing that officers should have more responsibility, not less, for the conduct of the men and women they lead.
Proponents of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, insist that far-reaching changes in the Uniform Code of Military Justice are necessary to curb the scourge of rapes and sexual assaults within the armed forces.
One of those changes, they argue, would be to ensure that there is less potential for personal bias with military commanders overseeing charges of sexual assault brought against their subordinates. The showdown vote capped a nearly yearlong campaign by Gillibrand but was unlikely to be the final word.
The Pentagon came under pressure last month to disclose more information about how sexual assault cases are adjudicated following an Associated Press investigation that found a pattern of inconsistent judgments and light penalties for sexual assaults at US bases in Japan.
Gillibrand, who chairs the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee, called on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a Feb. 10 letter to turn over case information from four major US bases. Such records would shed more light on how military commanders make decisions about courts-martial and punishments in sexual assault cases and whether the inconsistent judgments seen in Japan are more widespread.
In recent years, the military has struggled with numerous reports of sexual assault.
On Thursday, for instance, Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, who was accused of sexual assault, pleaded guilty to three lesser charges, including possessing a hoard of pornography, a violation of Army regulations. Sinclair is believed to be the most senior member of the US military to face trial on sexual assault charges.
Late last year, after much debate, Congress passed numerous changes to the military's legal system. But the reforms didn't go far enough for many lawmakers.
Under Gillibrand's proposal, the decision to take serious crimes to courts-martial would be removed from commanders and given to seasoned military trial lawyers who have prosecutorial experience and would operate out of a newly established office independent of the chain of command.
The legislation, Gillibrand said in a recent interview, would spark the cultural shift needed to create a climate in which victims have the confidence to step forward and report sex crimes without the fear of retaliation.
With commanders making the call, there is the chance a personal bias may influence the decision, proponents of Gillibrand's bill have argued.
The dispute hinges on the role that senior military commanders play within the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The Defense Department system is completely separate from civilian courts, and with the code, commanders are vested with substantial authority to decide when and how to deal with crimes committed by service members.
That power to punish or pardon has been a principal tenet of military law dating back more than two centuries. It's rooted in the military's conviction that commanders must have the ability to discipline the troops they lead in peacetime and war.
Undercutting that role, top Defense Department officials have warned, would send a message that there is a lack of faith in the officer corps, and that in turn would undermine the efficiency and effectiveness of the armed forces.
Al Jazeera and wire services
Long-awaited Trial Begins for Army General Facing Sex Charges; Jury Seated in North Carolina
Michael Biesecker / Associated Press
FORT BRAGG, N.C. (March 5, 2014) -- 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.
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