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Army Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair pleads guilty on lesser counts, sexual assault charges dropped

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

An Army general who admitted to improper relationships with three subordinates appeared to choke up Monday as he told a judge that he'd failed the female captain who had leveled the most serious accusations against him.

At his sentencing hearing, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair explained details of his three-year affair with the woman under his command for the first time publicly. His voice halted when telling the judge why he was pleading guilty to mistreating her in a deal that included the dropping of sexual assault charges.

"I failed her as a leader and as a mentor and caused harm to her emotional state," Sinclair said, his voice catching as he read from a statement. He asked the judge for a break and took a long drink of water before continuing to read.

"I created a situation over time that caused her emotional harm," Sinclair said, seated in his dress blue uniform. It was the first public show of regret or sadness for a 27-year veteran who had betrayed little emotion in court hearings over the past year.

The judge accepted Sinclair's guilty pleas on several lesser charges in a deal that includes the dropping of sexual assault counts and two others that may have required him to register as a sex offender.

A sentencing hearing for Sinclair was scheduled to start Monday afternoon. Ultimately, the judge will give Sinclair a sentence that can't exceed terms in the agreement struck between defense lawyers and military attorneys over the weekend. The legal agreement is likely to require a punishment far less severe than the maximum penalties of 21 1/2  years in prison and dismissal from the Army.

Sinclair's own lawyer suggested he might walk out of court a free man, but without a career and perhaps with hundreds of thousands of dollars less in pension benefits.

"I hope he is permitted to retire at a reduced rank and can go home to his family," defense attorney Richard Scheff said before court started Monday.

Scheff said Sinclair had pleaded guilty to violations of military law that likely would not be criminal in the civilian world.

Sinclair, 51, had been accused of twice forcing the female captain under his command to perform oral sex during the three-year extramarital affair. The Associated Press does not generally identify those who say they were victims of sexual assault.

The married general pleaded guilty earlier this month to having improper relationships with three subordinate officers, including the captain. He also pleaded guilty to adultery, which is a crime in the military.

After those pleas were entered, the military judge found evidence that there may have been improper influence in a decision to reject a previous plea offer by Sinclair. The trial was halted in an unusual move to allow further plea negotiations.

Under a plea deal reached over the weekend, Sinclair admits his treatment of the captain broke military law and could have caused "mental harm or suffering during the course of an on-going inappropriate sexual relationship."

Sinclair also on Monday admitted to abusing a government credit card he used while traveling to visit his mistress and contacting her after being told not to.

In court on Monday, Sinclair denied ever putting his hands on the captain in anger. He said he once held her briefly as she tried to leave a hotel room because he was afraid she might harm herself and or draw attention in the lobby that would reveal their affair.

About a year into the affair, Sinclair said he began to realize that the captain wanted a complete relationship, while he was not going to leave his wife. He said the captain was "emotionally invested in a way I was not."

So Sinclair started using tactics to try to keep the captain from revealing a relationship that broke military law both because Sinclair was married and a superior officer.

He lied and said he planned to divorce his wife to keep the captain hoping for something more. And he started flirting with other women in hopes that the captain would leave quietly.

Sinclair said his actions were "not based on my honest feelings for her, but were based on my fear of exposure."

The end of Sinclair's prosecution comes as the military continues to grapple with revelations of sex crimes in its ranks and political pressure to address the issue. The general's chief attorney said he understands that the military needs to take a harder line against sexual assault but that there must be a balance.

"It doesn't mean every complaint that's brought should go forward," Scheff said.

Prosecutors have not spoken outside court since word of the plea deal was released.

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

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.

The Army's case against Sinclair started to crumble as questions arose about whether his primary accuser had lied in a pre-trial hearing. It was further thrown into jeopardy last week when Judge Col. James Pohl said the military may have improperly pressed ahead with the trial to send a message about its determination to curb rape and other widespread misconduct. Under the military code of justice, the decision was supposed to be decided solely on the evidence, not its broader political implications.

Sinclair's lawyers may call up to two dozen witnesses to testify on his behalf at the sentencing hearing. Prosecutors will also call witnesses. It isn't known if Sinclair's primary accuser will testify.

The hearing is expected to last into Tuesday.

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