FORT BRAGG, N.C. — About a month before a US Army general’s trial on sexual assault charges, the lead prosecutor broke down in tears, appearing drunk and suicidal as he told a superior he did not think the closely watched case should go forward, according to testimony Tuesday.
Lieutenant Colonel William Helixon said he was convinced the accuser had lied about crucial evidence, but thought the case against Brigadier General Jeffrey A. Sinclair was of such strategic importance to the military’s crackdown on sexual assaults, he felt pressured to pursue it, according to testimony from Brigadier General Paul Wilson, who found the prosecutor distraught in a Washington hotel room.
Sinclair faces a court-martial on charges that include physically forcing a female captain under his command to perform oral sex. His lawyers have asked a judge to dismiss the most serious of the charges against him, saying top brass at the Pentagon have unlawfully interfered with prosecutorial decisions, but the judge declined Tuesday.
Helixon was removed from the case last month, and a new prosecutor was assigned to take it to trial, which is to begin this week.
The case against Sinclair, believed to be the most senior member of the US military ever to face trial for sexual assault, comes as the Pentagon grapples with a string of disclosures involving rape and sexual misconduct within the ranks.
Helixon was not called to testify, but Wilson took the stand and talked about finding Helixon in the hotel room Feb. 8. Wilson testified Tuesday that Helixon appeared drunk and suicidal, and he was taken for a mental health evaluation.
‘‘He was in the midst of a personal crisis. He was crying. He was illogical,’’ Wilson said. ‘‘I truly believed if he could have stepped in front of a bus at the time, I think he would have.’’
Sinclair, who was the deputy commander of the 82d Airborne and a rising star among the Army’s top battle commanders, is fighting charges that could bring him life in a military prison if convicted. He has pleaded not guilty to eight criminal charges including forcible sodomy, indecent acts, violating orders, and conduct unbecoming an officer.
Lawyers for the married father of two have said he carried on a three-year extramarital affair with an officer under his command during war tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The admission of an affair will almost certainly end his Army career.
In pretrial hearings, prosecutors painted Sinclair as a sexual predator who abused his position of authority. They also say he threatened to kill her and her family if she told anyone of their relationship.
But the lead prosecutor became convinced the accuser lied to him when she testified in January about evidence collected from her cellphone. The captain testified that on Dec. 9, shortly after what she described as a contentious meeting with prosecutors, she rediscovered an old iPhone stored in a box at her home that still contained saved text messages and voicemails from the general. After charging the phone, she testified she synced it with her computer to save photos before contacting her lawyer.
However, a defense analyst’s examination suggested the captain powered up the device more than two weeks before the meeting with prosecutors. She also tried to make a call and performed a number of other operations.