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Army Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair agrees to plea deal that drops sex assault charges, defense says

jeffreysinclairAP.jpg

March 4, 2014: Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair leaves the courthouse following a day of motions at Fort Bragg, N.C. (AP/The Fayetteville Observer)

Defense attorneys said Sunday that the Army will drop sexual assault charges against a general under a plea deal that marks the end of a closely watched case that unfolded as the military grapples with sex crimes within the ranks.

Lawyers representing Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair said he will plead to lesser charges in exchange for the dropping of the sexual assault charges and two other counts that might have required Sinclair to register as a sex offender.

Sinclair, 51, had been accused of twice forcing a female captain under his command to perform oral sex during a three-year extramarital affair. But the Army's case against Sinclair crumbled in recent weeks as questions arose about whether the woman had lied in a pre-trial hearing.

The defense provided a copy of the plea agreement approved and signed by a high-ranking general overseeing the case. Sinclair is expected to enter the new pleas when his court martial reconvenes Monday morning at Fort Bragg.

The married 27-year Army veteran pleaded guilty earlier this month to having improper relationships with three subordinate officers, including the female captain who accused him of assault. He also pleaded guilty to adultery, which is a crime in the military.

Under the plea deal reached over the weekend, Sinclair will also admit abusing a government credit card he used while traveling to visit his mistress.

Defense attorney Richard Scheff said that Sinclair is admitting to his mistakes, but added that the general is pleading guilty to behavior that likely wouldn't be criminal in the civilian world.

"After wasting millions of taxpayer dollars, the Army finally admitted what it's known for many months: General Sinclair is innocent of sexual assault," Scheff said. "Brigadier General Sinclair has admitted to mistakes that are normally a matter between husbands and wives, or employees and HR departments. It's time to put this matter to rest."

The former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, Sinclair is believed to be the highest-ranking U.S. military officer to ever face court martial on sexual assault charges.

A spokesman for Fort Bragg commander Maj. Gen. Clarence K.K. Chinn, who approved Sinclair's plea deal, could not immediately be reached for comment.

According to the defense, a separate agreement reached with Chinn will dictate what punishments Sinclair will receive. He could face more than 15 years in prison and dismissal from the Army, though the plea agreement is likely to call for a punishment much lower than the maximum penalties.

That part of the agreement will remain secret until after the judge overseeing the case, Col. James Pohl, conducts a sentencing hearing later this week. That process will include testimony from about 20 witnesses.

It was not immediately clear whether his primary accuser will be among those called to the stand. The Associated Press generally does not name those who say they were victims of sexual assault.

Capt. Cassie L. Fowler, the military lawyer assigned to represent the accuser's interests, did not respond to a message seeking comment Sunday.

In a December letter, Fowler had argued to prosecutors that dismissing the sexual assault charges against Sinclair would not only harm her client, but would set back the military's broader fight to combat sexual assault.

At the upcoming hearing, Pohl will sentence Sinclair based on the evidence presented before unsealing the plea deal. Sinclair will receive whichever is the lesser punishment — the judge's sentence or the negotiated pre-sentencing agreement with prosecutors.

Sinclair may also face additional administrative penalties from the Army, which could force him to retire at reduced rank. That could cost Sinclair hundreds of thousands of dollars in pension benefits.

Retired Maj. Gen. Walt Huffman, a Texas Tech University law professor who previously served as the Army's top lawyer, said Sinclair could be busted back two ranks to lieutenant colonel since the affair with the woman began before his most recent promotion.

Huffman said it's possible that Pohl could sentence Sinclair to a punishment lower than what's called for in the plea agreement.

"If the judge determines he was a good soldier who served his country well other than his inability to control his zipper, then the judge might cut him a break," Huffman said. "But either way, his career in the Army is going to be over."

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