FORT BRAGG, N.C. — An Army general who carried on a three-year affair with a captain and had two other inappropriate relationships with subordinates was reprimanded and docked $20,000 in pay Thursday, avoiding prison in one of the military's most closely watched courts-martial.
Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, the former deputy commander of the storied 82nd Airborne Division, was believed to be the highest-ranking U.S. military officer ever court-martialed on sexual assault charges. But earlier this week those charges were dropped when he pleaded guilty to adultery and having inappropriate relationships with two other women by asking them for nude pictures and exchanging sexually explicit email with them.
Sinclair immediately announced his retirement, a humiliating fall for the battle-tested commander once regarded as a rising star in the Army. A disciplinary board could still bust him in rank and severely reduce his pension.
After the sentence was handed down, Sinclair, 51, smiled and hugged his two lawyers in the courtroom. Outside the building, he made a brief statement.
"The system worked. I've always been proud of my Army," said Sinclair, whose attorney said he plans to retire to a home he recently bought in his native West Virginia. "All I want to do now is go north and hug my kids and my wife."
The case unfolded with the Pentagon under heavy pressure to confront what it has called an epidemic of rape and other sexual misconduct in the ranks. Legal experts, a women's military group and women in Congress were shocked by the sentence and called for more changes.
U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said it was a "laughable punishment."
"Even when the world is watching, the military has demonstrated their incompetence at meting out justice," Speier said in a statement. "This is another sordid example of how truly broken the military justice system is. This sentence is a mockery of military justice, a slap on the wrist nowhere close to being proportional to Sinclair's offenses."
In another high-profile case in Washington, a military judge found a former Naval Academy football player not guilty of sexual assault charge Thursday after a three-day trial. In that case, three midshipmen were originally charged but only one went to trial. Prosecutors said the alleged victim was too drunk to consent to sex, but attorneys for Joshua Tate, of Nashville, Tenn., disagreed.
In the Sinclair case, as part of his plea deal, his sentence could not exceed terms in a sealed agreement between defense lawyers and military attorneys. The agreement, unsealed Thursday, called for Sinclair to serve no more than 18 months in jail, but Col. James Pohl's punishment was much lighter.
The judge did not explain specifically how he came to the sentence and prosecutors did not immediately comment. Capt. Cassie L. Fowler, the military lawyer assigned to represent the accuser's interests, had a grim expression after the sentence was imposed and declined to comment.
Sinclair's fine breaks down to $5,000 a month for four months. He earns about $12,000 a month.
Retired Lt. Col. Gary D. Solis, who teaches law at West Point and Georgetown University, called Pohl's ruling lenient.
"I can't believe it," said Solis, who served 26 years of active duty in the Marine Corps and tried hundreds of cases as a military judge. "I know Judge Pohl to be one of the best judges in the Army judicial system, but ... this is an individual who should not be a general officer. He should have gone to jail and dismissed from the Army."
Sinclair will now go before Fort Bragg commander Maj. Gen. Clarence K.K. Chinn, who approved Sinclair's plea deal, and he'll get either an oral or written reprimand. Then he'll appear before a board to determine whether he will lose any rank, which could cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits.
The defense calculated that if Sinclair were allowed to retire and be demoted by two ranks, he would lose $831,000 in retirement benefits by age 82.
In closing arguments, prosecutors argued Sinclair should be thrown out of the Army and lose his military benefits, while the defense said that would harm his innocent wife and their two sons the most. Prosecutors did not ask the judge to send Sinclair to jail, even though the maximum penalty he faced was more than 20 years.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys offered contrasting arguments about the seriousness of the misdeeds that felled the general.
"It's not just one mistake. Not just one lapse in judgment. It was repeated," prosecutor Maj. Rebecca DiMuro said. "They are not mistakes. We are not in the court of criminal mistakes. These are crimes."
The general also pleaded guilty to using his government-issued credit card to pay for trips to see his mistress and other conduct unbecoming an officer.
In the charges that were dropped as part of the plea deal, Sinclair had been accused of twice forcing the female captain to perform oral sex during their affair.
The Army's case against Sinclair started to crumble as questions arose about his primary accuser's credibility and whether military officials improperly rejected a previous plea deal because of political concerns.
Greg Jacob of the Service Women's Action Network, an equal rights group, said the sentencing reflected a case that fell apart long ago.
"A system shaky enough to be rocked by allegations of undue command influence cannot provide justice for our troops," said Jacob, the group's policy director and a former Marine. "The Gen. Sinclair case will go down in history as yet another reason we need Sen. (Kirsten) Gillibrand's Military Justice Improvement Act."
That legislation, which was defeated in the Senate earlier this month, would have stripped commanders of the authority to prosecute cases and given that power to seasoned military lawyers.
"This case has illustrated a military justice system in dire need of independence from the chain of command," Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who fought the bill, said the case reinforced her argument.
"As a former sex crimes prosecutor, Claire knows how difficult these cases can be to prosecute, and this case is obviously a complicated one. But one of its lessons highlights what we already know — that commanders are often more aggressive than prosecutors in pursuing prosecutions and vetting these cases," spokeswoman Sarah Feldman said.
On Wednesday, a letter from Sinclair's wife, Rebecca, was read aloud. The general buried his head in his hands, appeared to cry and dabbed his eyes with tissues.
In the letter, Rebecca Sinclair said she hasn't fully forgiven her husband but that she didn't want the Army to punish him and his family further with a significant reduction to his pension and other benefits.
"Believe me when I tell you that the public humiliation and vilification he has endured are nothing compared to the private suffering and guilt that he lives with every day," she wrote.
Sinclair's wife did not attend the court proceedings.