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Plea deal discussed in Army general’s sexual assault case

FORT BRAGG, N.C. — In a series of phone calls and e-mails on Tuesday, military officials and lawyers for Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair began their first full day of negotiations on a plea agreement that would end the sexual assault case against the general, who is accused of bullying a junior officer into sex and then threatening her life.

The talks began shortly after a military judge, Colonel James L. Pohl, halted Sinclair’s trial on Monday, ruling that politics may have affected a senior Army official’s decision to turn down an earlier attempt to reach an accord and avoid a prolonged trial.

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In a brief court session Tuesday morning, Pohl sent the jury of five two-star generals back to their home stations while the two sides attempt to strike a deal — a process that could take days, or longer.

If the two sides do reach an agreement, it must be approved by a senior military official with no connection to the current case.

After the hearing, Richard L. Scheff, Sinclair’s lead defense lawyer, said that the general would not agree to a deal that would require him to plead guilty to the most serious charges he is facing, such as forcible sodomy, or to register as a sex offender.

“None of our positions have changed, and what that means is that other positions are changing,” Scheff said during a news conference outside the courthouse here.

Sinclair has already pleaded guilty to a set of lesser charges, including possession of pornography and adultery. He entered those pleas last week as part of a defense strategy to focus the trial phase of his court-martial on the credibility of his accuser, who has been the subject of scrutiny since a January pretrial hearing in which her testimony about her discovery of an old iPhone contrasted with forensic evidence.

But he is still facing charges that carry a possible life sentence, including forcible sodomy, wrongful sexual contact, indecent acts, and misuse of government credit cards.

Pohl’s decision to halt the trial stemmed from a letter written in December by a lawyer for the main witness against Sinclair, a captain who has accused him of forcing her to have sex and threatening her life. The letter said the captain was opposed to a plea deal, and it referred to the potential political consequences of an agreement on the Army’s efforts to combat sexual assault.

Pohl said he believed the letter might have unduly influenced Lieutenant General Joseph Anderson, the commanding general of the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg.

“Allowing the accused to characterize this relationship as a consensual affair would only strengthen the arguments of those individuals that believe the prosecution of sexual assault should be taken away from the Army,” the accuser’s lawyer, Captain Cassie L. Fowler, wrote.

Anderson, who testified by phone from Afghanistan on Monday, denied that the threat of political fallout had factored into his thinking about the case, but Pohl ruled that the appearance of “unlawful command influence” required action.

Sinclair faces up to 15 years in prison on the charges he already pleaded guilty to.

Scheff said Tuesday that if defense lawyers could not find common ground with Army prosecutors, Sinclair remained intent on proceeding with his trial.

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