FORT BRAGG, N.C. – In his immaculate blue dress uniform, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair stood ramrod straight before a judge Thursday and pleaded guilty to three charges that could send him to prison for up to 15 years.
It was a remarkable admission, sure to end the military career of a man once regarded as a rising star among the U.S. Army’s small cadre of trusted battle commanders.
Sinclair, 51, still faces five other charges stemming from the claims of a female captain nearly 20 years his junior who says the general twice forced her to perform oral sex. But by pleading guilty to the lesser charges, Sinclair’s lawyers believe they will strengthen his case at trial by potentially limiting some of the salacious evidence prosecutors can present.
The former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted of the sexual assaults. Opening statements were expected today.
Asked by judge Col. James Pohl whether he understood the consequences of his admissions, the decorated veteran of five combat deployments answered: Yes, sir.
The general pleaded guilty to having improper relationships with two female Army officers and to committing adultery with a third, the captain who was his longtime mistress. Adultery is a crime in the military.
The general also admitted to violating orders by possessing pornography and to conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. After he knew he was under investigation, Sinclair also said he deleted nude photos from a personal email account sent by a civilian woman with whom he was childhood friends.
Sinclair’s lawyer Richard Scheff has said the plea will strengthen the general’s legal position. By admitting guilt on the charges for which there is the strongest evidence, the married father of two hoped to narrow the focus of the trial to charges that rely heavily on the testimony and credibility of his former mistress, who is the only one accusing him of assault.
The defense will present evidence that the female captain lied under oath during a pretrial hearing in January about her handling of an old iPhone containing messages between her and the general. Lawyers for Sinclair have portrayed the woman as a scorned lover who reported sexual assaults only after the general refused to leave his wife.
During a pretrial hearing this week, a top Pentagon lawyer testified that the lead prosecutor assigned to the case for nearly two years, Lt. Col. William Helixon, had urged that the most serious charges against Sinclair be dropped after he became convinced the captain had lied to him about the cellphone.
Helixon was overruled by his superiors and was removed from the case last month after he suffered what was described as a profound moral crisis that led to his being taken to a military hospital for a mental health evaluation.