FORT BRAGG, N.C. — The military judge overseeing the court-martial of Brigadier General Jeffrey A. Sinclair, accused of sexually assaulting a 34-year-old captain formerly under his command, ruled Monday that Army officials may have been improperly influenced when they rejected Sinclair’s offer to plead guilty to more charges.
The judge, Colonel James L. Pohl, said from the bench that he was “not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt” that the prosecutors and their commanders at Fort Bragg, N.C., where Sinclair is based and is being tried, acted completely independent of external politics and possible pressure from senior Pentagon officials when they decided to turn down Sinclair’s offer, made late last year.
Pohl said he would give Sinclair the opportunity, until Tuesday morning, to file a new plea offer. If the general makes a new offer, the judge said, a senior Army officer not currently involved in the case would be named to decide whether to accept it.
But if Sinclair decides not to file a new plea, the trial will proceed on Tuesday, the judge said.
In ruling that “unlawful command influence” had occurred, Pohl found in particular that a letter by Captain Cassie Fowler, a lawyer representing the accuser, may have affected the thinking of Lieutenant General Joseph Anderson, the commanding general of Fort Bragg’s XVIII Airborne Corps and the ultimate authority over the court-martial.
That letter, sent in December, said the accuser 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.
“The letter from the SVC raised the appearance of unlawful command influence,” Pohl said in revealing his decision on Monday, using an Army abbreviation for special victims’ counsel. The judge said he believed evidence had proved that Anderson had read the letter.
The defense had produced Fowler’s letter last week in arguing for unlawful command influence. At the time, Pohl expressed concerns about the letter but said there was not enough evidence of improper influence to dismiss charges.
But Sinclair’s lawyers offered a new motion on Sunday of unlawful command influence based on e-mails it obtained from the military over the weekend documenting what they said was evidence of improper efforts to influence the prosecution by senior Army officials in Washington.
The e-mails show that a number of senior officers at Fort Bragg, and not just the former lead prosecutor in the case, Lieutenant Colonel William Helixon, had fears the captain might have testified untruthfully at a hearing in January.
Helixon quit the case last month after it was publicly disclosed that he had failed to persuade his superiors to dismiss the most serious charges against Sinclair.
Army officials have testified that Helixon was under extraordinary stress from health and personal issues when he expressed those views, and at one point was even acting irrationally and was suicidal. And they assert that the prosecution remains convinced that the accuser’s major accusation of sexual assault is true.
But the messages that defense lawyers obtained over the weekend indicate that the most senior Army lawyer at Fort Bragg had also raised immediate concerns with his commanding officer about the accuser’s testimony in January.
Sinclair last week pleaded guilty to a set of lesser charges, including possession of pornography and adultery, in hopes of focusing the case on the credibility of the captain.