Emails Show Shared Concern of False Testimony in Army Sexual Assault Case
By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr.
MARCH 9, 2014
Lawyers defending Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair on sexual assault charges are renewing claims that the case against him has been tainted by the influence of senior officials in the Pentagon, citing emails that military prosecutors turned over during the weekend.
The emails show that fears that General Sinclair’s chief accuser might have testified untruthfully at a hearing in January were discussed among a number of senior officers at Fort Bragg, N.C., and were not limited to just the former lead prosecutor, who quit the case last month.
The decision by the prosecutor, Lt. Col. William Helixon, to resign from the case after he failed to persuade his superiors to dismiss the most serious charges — and the public disclosure of their disagreement — had thrown the prosecution into turmoil.
That culminated in a hearing last week at Fort Bragg before the start of the court-martial, where Army officials testified that Colonel Helixon was under extraordinary stress from health and personal issues when he had expressed misgivings about the chief prosecution witness, and at one point was even acting irrationally and was suicidal.
But documents that defense lawyers made available to a reporter on Sunday indicated that the most senior Army lawyer at Fort Bragg had also raised immediate concerns with his commanding officer about the accuser’s testimony in January, which was about her finding an old iPhone that contained messages between herself and General Sinclair.
“It is possible that she was not truthful,” Col. Michael Lacey, the senior military lawyer at Fort Bragg’s XVIII Airborne Corps, wrote to the Corps commanding officer, Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, in an email early the morning after the accuser’s Jan. 7 testimony.
The conflict between her description of discovering the phone, and what forensic analysis indicated, “brings her credibility into question,” Colonel Lacey wrote.
The court-martial proceedings against General Sinclair began last week at Fort Bragg, after the general pleaded guilty to a handful of lesser charges, in hopes of narrowing the trial to focus on the credibility of his chief accuser, with whom the general has acknowledged having a three-year extramarital affair. The court-martial is scheduled to resume on Monday.
Army prosecutors have said that they do not question the woman’s account of sexual assault by General Sinclair, 51, who is accused of forcing his former lover, a junior officer, to perform oral sex, and threatening to kill her and her family if she revealed their affair.
A separate email disclosed over the weekend shows that another Army lawyer at Fort Bragg advising the top commander at the base about the court-martial solicited input about the case in December from one of the Army’s top lawyers at the Pentagon.
The email was sent Dec. 16 by Lt. Col. James Bagwell, chief of military justice at Fort Bragg — who defense lawyers said at the time was also serving as the base’s acting staff judge advocate — to Brig. Gen. Paul Wilson, then a colonel, who is a senior officer at the Judge Advocate General’s Corps at Army headquarters at the Pentagon.
The email detailed General Sinclair’s offer to plead guilty to charges including adultery and conduct unbecoming an officer and to retire at a reduced rank, if the military agreed to drop the most serious charges of sexual assault. It was sent days after the general’s chief accuser revealed to prosecutors that she had found the old iPhone.
“Sir: Lot has been happening on this case over the past week – virtually none of it good for Govt,” Colonel Bagwell wrote. “I was wondering if I get your thoughts/opinion on the latest attached OTP” from General Sinclair, he wrote, using the military acronym for “offer to plead.”
In the email, Colonel Bagwell appeared to endorse the concept of a plea bargain with General Sinclair. “For my part it’s 90% there,” he wrote, referring to the plea offer.
None of the new emails showed whether General Wilson responded, or if he did, whether he argued the plea agreement should be rejected, as it was the next month.
But lawyers for General Sinclair believe it is the latest evidence that suggests the Pentagon has improperly influenced the prosecution, and on Sunday night they submitted a new motion with the military court at Fort Bragg complaining of “unlawful command influence.” The military judge hearing the case has rejected several previous motions seeking dismissal of charges based on allegations of improper influence.
General Sinclair, former deputy commander of American forces in southern Afghanistan, has long conceded an affair with his chief accuser, now a 34-year-old captain, but his lawyers have denied the sexual assault charges, claiming the woman fabricated the allegations to avoid prosecution for adultery, which is punishable under military law.