Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair pleaded guilty Thursday to three charges that could send him to prison for up to 15 years. He still faces five other charges stemming from the claims of a female captain nearly 20 years his junior who says the general twice forced her to perform oral sex. (James Robinson / AP via The Fayetteville Observer)
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FORT BRAGG, N.C. — On the verge of tears, the captain whose sexual assault accusations triggered the prosecution of an Army general took to the witness stand Friday, testifying that the two had frequent trysts and that she thought her commander's wife knew about her.
Asked by a prosecutor to identify her abuser, the woman's eyes darted quickly in the direction of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, seated at the defense table. She pointed at the man with whom she admits violating military law by having a three-year-long affair.
The trial begins as the Pentagon is under intense scrutiny over revelations of rampant rape and sexual misconduct within the ranks. Sinclair, 51, is believed to be the highest ranking U.S. military officer to ever face court martial on sexual assault charges.
The Associated Press generally does not identify those who say they were sexually assaulted.
In opening statements Friday, lead prosecutor Lt. Col. Robert Stelle painted Sinclair, 51, as a man who used his authority to intimidate and coerce a female officer nearly 20 years his junior into sex and then threatened to kill her and her family if she told anyone.
Twice, according to the prosecution, he ended arguments about their relationship by unbuttoning his pants and forcing her head into his lap to perform oral sex.
The former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne, Sinclair could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted of sexual assault.
Defense lawyers portray Sinclair as the victim of overzealous prosecutors under political pressure to make an example of him, despite weak evidence and an accuser with a history of telling lies.
Defense attorney Ellen C. Brotman began his opening statement by reading the jury — composed of five two-star generals — excerpts from the woman's diary, written during the affair. Even after he is alleged to have threatened to kill her loved ones, she wrote of desire for him, Brotman said, and the only fear she expressed was that he might still love his wife.
"'I'm so in love with him,'" Brotman read from the diary. "'I do know that I love him incredibly. ... I love him almost unconditionally.'"
The woman and Sinclair exchanged thousands of text messages, often sexually explicit, according to the defense, and she sent messages even after he tried to break it off.
Their relationship began in Iraq in 2009. He was her direct commander, a paratrooper revered for bravery under enemy fire. She was a young intelligence officer and Arabic linguist, tasked with accompanying him on trips to meet Iraqi leaders.
She said that after months of conversation and flirtation, she said she went to his quarters late one night. They sat next to each other. He asked her to put down her hair, which she typically wore in a bun while in uniform. She complied, and he began stroking her hair. They kissed that night, and the relationship soon evolved into frequent secret sexual liaisons. Adultery is a crime in the military.
"It was wrong," she testified. "I knew it was wrong."
She testified that he had often spoken of his wife and children, describing his spouse as an exceptional and open-minded woman who understood he needed to have sex with others while overseas. She said she assumed Sinclair had told his wife about her.
Once, after sex, the captain said the general told her he reminded her of his wife, and she replied that she looked forward to meeting her.
Sobbing on the witness stand, the captain said Sinclair sharply replied that his wife could never know about their affair.
"He told me that if I ever told her or anyone else about he and I, he would kill me and then he would kill my family. And he would do it in a way no one would ever know."
Still, the woman admitted, she continued to have sex with him.
The woman's testimony is expected to continue through Friday afternoon.
On Thursday, Sinclair pleaded guilty to three lesser charges that could send him to prison for up to 15 years — a move sure to end his military career. Sinclair faces five other charges. By pleading guilty to the lesser charges, Sinclair's lawyers believe they will potentially limit some of the salacious evidence prosecutors can present. It will ultimately be up to the judge to determine what, if any, limitations to place on evidence as the case unfolds.