FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — Attorneys for an Army general charged with sexual assault have a deadline on Tuesday to decide on a judge's offer to plea-bargain the case with a new set of military officials.
Judge Col. James Pohl made the offer after finding evidence that the case against Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair may have been improperly influenced by political concerns. His decision threatened to take the case out of the hands of current prosecutors and gave Sinclair's lawyers another shot at effectively stripping away the most serious charges.
While Pohl declined to dismiss the charges, Sinclair's lead lawyer said judge's decision was a positive development for them. The lawyer, Richard Scheff, said the defense had not yet decided what to do. They could also choose to proceed with the court-martial, which began last week.
"This is an unprecedented situation. It's a mess created by the government. It wasn't created by us. We have so many options, we don't even know what they all are," Scheff said.
The twist comes with the Pentagon under heavy pressure from Congress and beyond to combat rape and other sex crimes in the military. On Monday, the Senate approved legislation cracking down on misconduct.
The judge reviewed newly disclosed emails in Sinclair's case and said he found the appearance of "unlawful command influence" in Fort Bragg officials' decision to reject a plea bargain with the general in January.
Under the military code of justice, the decision was supposed to be decided solely on the evidence, not its broader political implications.
But Pohl said the emails showed that the military officials who rejected the plea bargain had discussed a letter from the accuser's lawyer. The letter warned that allowing the general to avoid trial would "send the wrong signal."
Sinclair, the 51-year-old former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, is accused of twice forcing a female captain to perform oral sex on him in Afghanistan in 2011 during a three-year extramarital affair. He has admitted to the affair but denied assaulting the woman.
He is believed to be the highest-ranking U.S. military officer ever court-martialed on sexual assault charges. He could get life in prison if convicted.
The defense has portrayed the woman as a liar who concocted the allegations after she saw emails between Sinclair and another woman.
Scheff said the new developments vindicate what the defense has been claiming for months — that the Army pressed ahead with a weak case for fear of the political blowback that would result from dropping charges against such a high-profile defendant.
Lt. Col. Robert Stelle, the lead prosecutor, declined to comment after the hearing.
In December, Sinclair had offered to plead guilty to some of the lesser charges in exchange for the Army dropping the sexual assault charges, but he was turned down.
Sinclair's plea offer was discussed in emails among a high-ranking Washington-based Army lawyer, the prosecutors and the commanding general overseeing the case.
The judge said he doesn't think the whole case was tainted, just the decision on a plea agreement. The judge also criticized prosecutors for not giving defense lawyers the emails sooner: "The only reason we are in this conundrum is because of the government's late notice."
Last week, Sinclair pleaded guilty to three lesser charges involving adultery with the captain and improper relationships with two other female Army officers. Those charges could bring 15 years in prison. A trial then began on the remaining sexual assault charges.
Now, in light of the judge's ruling, the defense could ask to withdraw Sinclair's guilty plea.
In December, Sinclair's accuser came out against a plea bargain on the sexual assault charges in a letter sent by her attorney, Capt. Cassie L. Fowler. Fowler suggested that the proposal deal would "have an adverse effect on my client and the Army's fight against sexual assault."
"Acceptance of this plea would send the wrong signal to those senior commanders who would prey on their subordinates by using their rank and position, thereby ensuring there will be other victims like my client in the future," Fowler wrote.
Though prosecutors deny any consideration was given to Fowler's comments about the potential fallout, the emails turned over to the defense Saturday show they did discuss her assertions. One top military lawyer at Fort Bragg quoted her letter and said he found Fowler "very preachy."
It was Lt. Gen. James Anderson, as commander of Fort Bragg, who made the final decision on whether to accept Sinclair's plea offer.
Testifying from Afghanistan by telephone, Anderson said he didn't thoroughly read Fowler's letter. The only thing he weighed in rejecting the deal was that the accuser wanted her day in court, he said.
But Anderson's testimony appeared to be contradicted by a Dec. 20 email he sent to a military lawyer. "I have read the letter and made my decision," Anderson wrote.
Fowler said Monday that the courtroom maneuvering over her letter was "nothing more than an attempt to take the focus off the general's gross misconduct."
Associated Press writer Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.
Follow Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker at www.Twitter.com/mbieseck .