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General's defense to try for plea deal

by New York Times News Service on March 11, 2014 10:20 AM

FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Attorneys for an Army general charged with sexual assault will try to renegotiate a plea deal with a new set of military officials, The Associated Press reported today.

The judge in Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair's case sent the jury of generals back to their duty stations this morning, indicating that the trial is not likely to resume soon.

The military judge overseeing the court-martial of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair on sexual assault charges brought the trial to a halt Monday, suggesting that a senior Army official may have been improperly influenced by political considerations in his handling of the case.

The judge, Col. James L. Pohl, did not dismiss the charges against Sinclair, among the highest-ranking officers to be accused of sexual assault, but he ordered that the general be allowed to offer a plea agreement on lesser charges. His ruling threw the closely watched case into turmoil, raising questions about whether the trial would continue or be delayed if plea negotiations proceed.

In ruling that “unlawful command influence” may have occurred, Pohl suggested that the officer with ultimate authority over the case, Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, might have rejected a previous plea offer from Sinclair because he was worried about potential fallout from not prosecuting Sinclair to the fullest.

Members of Congress have criticized the Pentagon for not doing enough to crack down on a rising tide of sexual assault, debating bills that would drastically change the way sexual assault prosecutions are handled in the military.

The judge said he was particularly worried that a letter written by a lawyer for the main witness against Sinclair, a captain who has accused him of forcing her to have sex and threatening her life, seemed to have unduly influenced Anderson, the commanding general of the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg. That letter, sent in December, said the captain was opposed to a plea deal, and it invoked the potential political consequences of an agreement on the Army’s efforts to combat sexual assault.

On Monday, Anderson testified by phone from Afghanistan that the captain’s opposition was the principal factor in his decision to reject Sinclair’s plea offer.

Pohl gave Sinclair until this morning to decide whether to submit a plea offer.

Richard L. Scheff, the civilian lawyer from Philadelphia who is leading Sinclair’s defense, called Monday’s ruling a “major win.”

But Capt. Cassie Fowler, the special victim counsel for the general’s chief accuser, said in a statement that the ruling was the result of “misdirection” by the defense.

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