General’s wrist slap reveals weakness

The following editorial appeared in the Dallas Morning News on Friday:

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair provided the ironic coda Thursday to one of the military’s most scrutinized courts-martial: “The system worked.”

For him, it did. The former deputy commander of U.S. forces in southern Afghanistan will walk away with no jail time, despite charges of a three-year affair with a captain and two other inappropriate relationships with subordinates. And those were the cleaned-up allegations; sexual assault charges were dropped when he pleaded guilty to the lesser counts.

Adultery is a crime under military law, but apparently not a terribly serious one for a general who was second in command for the famed 82nd Airborne.

Once facing more than 20 years in prison, Sinclair cut a deal to serve no more than 18 months. And the judge in his court-martial, Col. James Pohl, bent even further toward leniency, letting Sinclair retire early with a reprimand, full benefits and a $20,000 fine.

In military outposts around the globe, American grunts shook their heads knowingly: One set of laws for them, another one for the brass.

Sinclair had been accused of twice forcing a captain to engage in oral sex after she tried to break off their affair. He also faced a forcible sodomy charge and was accused of grabbing her genitalia against her will and having sex with her in public.

All of that disappeared amid allegations that military prosecutors had to do their jobs with superior officers looking over their shoulders and exercising their authority. The captain’s credibility came under serious question; military officials were accused of scuttling an earlier plea deal. In short, the case devolved into a mess.

Anyone paying attention — Sinclair is believed to be the highest-ranking U.S. officer to face sexual assault allegations — had little reason to trust the decision-making when it became clear that powers other than trained prosecutors were interceding in matters of law.

Any criminal case, especially one with sexual allegations, can become complicated. This is as true in the civilian world as the military. The obvious difference is that the standard in civilian prosecution is for actual prosecutors to make the calls. It would be naive to believe politics never get in the way, but that’s the inappropriate (and sometimes illegal) exception, not the rule.

This is one more reason a minority of U.S. senators were wrong to block consideration of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s bill to place responsibility for sexual assault cases in the hands of seasoned prosecutors, rather than military commanders.

Despite bipartisan support, the New York Democrat could not muster the 60 votes needed to proceed, and the Senate opted to pass a lesser bill to remove the “good soldier” defense. More than nothing, but not much.

The Gillibrand bill wouldn’t have affected the Sinclair case directly, but it would have given confidence to future sexual assault complainants that chain-of-command considerations would not override right and wrong.

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