The Fayetteville Observer, Andrew Craft / AP
Tuesday, March 18, 2014 | 6:38 p.m.
FORT BRAGG, N.C. — An Army general awaiting sentencing for inappropriate relationships with three subordinates was praised Tuesday by more than a dozen defense witnesses as a smart, inspirational leader who deeply cared for his soldiers.
But prosecutors had one more reminder that Brig Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair didn't have all his soldiers' best interests in mind. A witness they called testified about a bawdy skit at a 2010 Army party that included dressed-up soldiers mocking the rampant rumors that the general was having an affair with a captain under his command.
Sinclair could learn his fate Wednesday as his sentencing hearing wraps up, though it's not clear if the judge will rule immediately. Sinclair faces a maximum of 21 1/2 years in prison and dismissal from the Army, but will likely face far less jail time and may not be sent behind bars at all.
The general admitted he mistreated the captain and had improper relationships with two other women. He also pleaded guilty to adultery — which is a crime in the military — as well as using his government-issued credit card to pay for improper trips to see his mistress and other conduct unbecoming an officer.
The 51-year-old general had been accused of twice forcing the female captain under his command to perform oral sex during the three-year extramarital affair, but the sexual assault charges were dropped as part of a plea deal.
Defense lawyers spent Tuesday focusing on the 27-year Army career that took Sinclair from the small West Virginia town where he grew up poor to a position leading thousands as deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne. They called his brother, his ROTC commander from college, a military wife whose husband served alongside him for years and a soldier who said Sinclair was the only person who believed he had something to contribute to the Army after he hurt his back.
Most had extensive praise for Sinclair, including retired Chief Warrant Officer Eric Lee, who testified by phone from Chile. He met Sinclair when both were Rangers in 1994.
Asked by Sinclair's lawyers if he would follow the general into combat if he were deployed again, he said: "I'd be on the next plane out of the Santiago airport."
Such testimony could be banned from future military trials under legislation being considered in Congress. To better protect alleged victims within the ranks, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved legislation last week to ban the "good-soldier defense" in order to ensure that a defendant's fate is determined solely by evidence. The House has signaled it won't take up the bill immediately despite the momentum generated by the Senate's 97-0 vote.
Prosecutors countered Tuesday's defense-witness testimony by asking each witness if a truly inspirational and talented officer would solicit nude photos from subordinates — behavior Sinclair admitted to.
They also called two final witnesses in the morning, including Lt. Col. Benjamin Bigelow. He talked about a 2010 party in Germany that included a sexually suggestive skit involving soldiers dressed up as Sinclair and the captain who was his primary accuser.
During the skit, the character in the wig "moved in front of the Sinclair character's crotch and offered to do something for him," Bigelow said. "There was absolutely no question."
Bigelow said Sinclair's wife attended the party and was "clearly shocked, angered and dismayed." He said the accuser was not at the party.
Sinclair's attorney pointed out he had nothing to do with the skit and demanded an explanation and an apology.
The Army's case against Sinclair started to crumble as questions arose about whether his primary accuser had lied in a pre-trial hearing. It was further thrown into jeopardy last week when Judge Col. James Pohl said the military may have improperly pressed ahead with the trial to send a message about its determination to curb rape and other widespread misconduct. Under the military code of justice, the decision was supposed to be decided solely on the evidence, not its broader political implications.
At Monday's hearing, prosecutors also called Lt. Nargis Kabiri to testify that she rebuffed advances from Sinclair, who invited her to go horseback riding after she sought him out as a mentor.
Sinclair pleaded guilty to conduct unbecoming of an officer for the advances on Kabiri, who was not one of the three subordinates with whom he admitted an inappropriate relationship.
She said the publicity of being connected to the Sinclair case has hurt her as she tries to move through the ranks in the male-dominated area of field artillery.
Male commanders will refuse to talk to her alone in their offices.
"I have had male leaders who approach me with caution, and I approach them with caution," she said.