FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — Three U.S. Army generals took turns on a witness stand at Fort Bragg Tuesday during a pre-trial hearing for another general facing sexual assault allegations.
Gen. Dan Allyn and Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Colt denied they were pressured to charge and prosecute Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, who faces a court-martial on a raft of charges that include forcible sodomy, indecent acts, violating orders and adultery. His trial is to begin next month.
Sinclair's defense team has suggested that top Pentagon officials may have improperly influenced Allyn and Colt to make an example of Sinclair. Tuesday's hearing at Fort Bragg came as U.S. senators dressed down senior Pentagon officials on Capitol Hill for the military's handling of sexual assault allegations, calling past efforts to curb such abuse woefully inadequate.
Defense lawyer Richard Scheff challenged Allyn and Colt to explain emails showing that then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno and others were receiving updates last year on the Sinclair investigation. At the time, Allyn was the commanding general of the 18th Airborne Corps. Colt was his deputy commander.
In the military justice system, it is improper for senior commanders to pressure subordinates charged with making decisions about whether a case merits criminal prosecution. Both Allyn and Colt testified they kept the Pentagon apprised of progress in the case, but insisted they used their own judgment to make independent decisions about what to do with Sinclair.
"I wanted to make sure the seriousness of these charges was relayed to the Army's senior leadership before there was publicity," said Allyn, who was recently promoted to a fourth star and put in command of all Army troops in the United States.
Tuesday's hearing was the most recent held to hear arguments and collect testimony regarding defense motions seeking to have the charges against Sinclair either thrown out or reinvestigated. Sinclair's lawyers contend he is the victim of selective prosecution, facing prison time over an extramarital dalliance where other officers were allowed to quietly retire.
A 27-year Army veteran and married father of two, Sinclair was deputy commander in charge of logistics and support for the 82nd Airborne in Afghanistan last spring before being relieved of command after a female aide reported she had carried on a three year-sexual relationship with him. The woman, a captain who served on Sinclair's personal staff, said she had repeatedly tried to end the relationship, but that Sinclair had threatened to kill her and twice ended arguments by physically forcing her to perform oral sex.
The Associated Press does not publicly identify victims of alleged sexual assaults.
Sinclair's defense lawyers have repeatedly suggested in court that the female captain fabricated the abuse claim only after meeting with lawyers and seeking immunity from prosecution for admitting her role in the affair. Adultery is a crime in the military.
But undercutting that contention is testimony from Maj. Gen. James Huggins, Sinclair's former commander in Afghanistan and the person who first initiated the investigation. At an evidentiary hearing in November, Huggins said the captain told him about the forced oral sex in the same late-night conversation in March 2012 when she first disclosed the improper relationship despite warnings that doing so could end her military career.
Since then, defense lawyers have suggested Huggins had misremembered the encounter, actually learning of the forced sex claim after reading the formal statement the captain gave to military investigators a week later. To bolster that claim, they have introduced evidence showing Huggins didn't include any mention of the alleged sexual assaults in his initial reports to superiors.
Recalled to the witness stand Tuesday, however, Huggins added new details to his account, saying he specifically remembers the captain putting her hand on the back of her neck to demonstrate to him how Sinclair had forced her to perform the sex act.
Huggins testified he didn't report the sexual assault allegation up the chain of command because the captain was "emotionally drained" when she first came to him to report what had happened.
"She was very upset, crying," Huggins said. "There were a lot of allegations made that night. ... I wanted her to get some rest and make a statement and then let the investigation play out."
That investigation would later turn up additional evidence Sinclair may have engaged in other misconduct. Two other female officers who served with Sinclair testified in November that they had given the general nude photos at his request. Investigators also reportedly found thousands of pornographic photos on his personal laptop, in apparent violation of a standing order prohibiting troops from possessing such material while serving in the conservative Muslim nation.
Sinclair's court martial is set to begin July 16.
Follow Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck