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Sinclair's Army reprimand and loss of pay leave both sides stunned

March 20, 2014|By David Zucchino | This post has been updated, as noted below.

FT. BRAGG, N.C. — In a light sentence that stunned even his lawyers, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair was sentenced to a reprimand and no jail time for mistreating a subordinate with whom he had a three-year adulterous affair, ending a tumultuous court-martial that focused national attention on the military’s uneven response to sexual misconduct in the ranks.

A military judge, Col. James L. Pohl, also ordered Sinclair, 51, to forfeit $5,000 of pay per month for four months and pay restitution of $4,156 for misusing his government charge card. Sinclair will be allowed to retire and receive a pension and other benefits, his rank to be determined by a military retirement board.

The one-star general grinned and hugged defense attorney Ellen Brotman, who was seated next to him, then stood and bear-hugged fellow officers who had testified on his behalf.

"The system worked -- I’ve always been proud of my Army," Sinclair told reporters outside the courthouse, wearing a dress blue uniform and a crimson beret. "All I want to do now ... is hug my kids and see my wife."

The punishment closes a deeply flawed case that embarrassed the Army and was undercut by the judge’s ruling of likely political interference and by accusations that the general’s accuser, an Army captain, lied on the witness stand. The sentence was certain to outrage advocacy groups that have accused the military of protecting senior commanders accused of sexual misconduct.

"Today's sentencing is beyond disappointing -- it is a travesty and a serious misstep for the Army," said retired Rear Adm. Jamie Barnett, a lawyer who is an unpaid advisor for the accuser.

Barnett said the captain told him that the sentence "doesn’t take away any of the pain and anguish that she has endured." He said the captain still says Sinclair forced her to perform oral sex, adding that "she had her day in court to speak the truth about the horrible things he did."

Barnett said the accuser's "courage and devotion seeking to ensure that this trauma does not happen to others is truly magnificent."

Minutes after the judge's sentence, Sinclair called his wife, Rebecca, who has stood by him despite his adultery and who asked the judge in a statement read in court Wednesday not to punish her and the couple's two boys, 10 and 12, with a harsh sentence.

[Update, 12:25 p.m. PDT March 20: A member of the defense team spoke with the general's wife after the sentecning hearing ended and said she was "very happy and equally relieved."]

The 27-year veteran of five combat tours had faced life in prison if convicted on original charges -- dismissed this month as the case faltered -- of sexual assault, sodomy and threatening to kill his lover, who reported to him.  After entering guilty pleas, he faced up to 25 1/2 years in prison, although prosecutors agreed to a cap of 18 months.

"This restores our faith in the system," Richard L. Scheff, Sinclair’s lead attorney, told reporters. "Someone who’s neutral and objective looked at the evidence and did the right thing."

Scheff said the general hoped to appear as soon as possible – perhaps Thursday – before the ranking commander at Ft. Bragg, Maj. Gen. Clarence K.K. Chinn, to be reprimanded in person. Then he intended to drive to his home state of West Virginia, where he and his wife have bought a house.

Army prosecutors did not comment. A Ft. Bragg spokeswoman, Maj. Crystal Boring, said military officials had no immediate comment.

The defense, which aggressively attacked the Army’s case and forced a favorable plea deal, was nonetheless so concerned that Sinclair would get jail time that it brought a black overcoat to shield handcuffs if he had been taken into custody.

After Pohl read the sentence, the defense team waited, poised for more penalties, lawyers said later. But when the judge abruptly adjourned, Scheff turned to his colleagues and said, "Wow!" He hugged Maj. Sean Foster, who delivered the defense closing arguments Wednesday and told him, "You are the man."

Sinclair was jubilant, hugging his lawyers and supporters, grinning broadly. He joked with military police handling courthouse security and thanked them for the way they had treated him during the court-marital. "It’s been a very difficult time for me and my family," he said minutes later.

The sentence allows Sinclair to remain in the Army, where he has been assigned to Ft. Bragg since he was removed in 2012 as deputy commander of U.S. forces in southern Afghanistan. Scheff said the general intends to retire.

If the board allows him to retire at lieutenant colonel -- the last rank he served honorably -- he would lose an estimated $831,000 in benefits he would have received until age 82 as a one-star general. His current salary is about $12,000 a month, according to his lawyers.

Maj. Gen. Chinn must sign off on the sentence. He can lower the penalty but cannot increase it.

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