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General chokes up as he details affair during plea

Tuesday - 3/18/2014, 3:56am  ET

FILE - In this March 4, 2014, file photo, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, right, leaves the courthouse with his lawyers Richard Scheff, left, and Ellen C. Brotman, not pictured, following a day of motions at Fort Bragg, N.C. A news release Sunday, March 16, 2014, from lawyers representing Sinclair said that he will plead to lesser charges in exchange for having the sexual assault charges dropped along with two others that might have required Sinclair to register as a sex offender. Sinclair was accused of twice forcing a female captain to perform oral sex on him during a three-year extramarital affair. (AP Photo/The Fayetteville Observer, James Robinson, File)

JEFFREY COLLINS
Associated Press

FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) -- An Army general who admitted to improper relationships with three subordinates appeared to choke up Monday as he told a judge that he'd failed the female captain who had leveled the most serious accusations against him.

Hours later, she took the stand to testify about how she can't trust people and fears her superiors are always going to take advantage of her in the aftermath of the three-year affair.

As he pleaded guilty, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair's voice halted when telling the judge why he was pleading guilty to mistreating her in a deal that included the dropping of sexual assault charges.

"I failed her as a leader and as a mentor and caused harm to her emotional state," Sinclair said, his voice catching as he read from a statement. He asked the judge for a break and took a long drink of water before continuing to read.

"I created a situation over time that caused her emotional harm," Sinclair said, seated in his dress blue uniform. It was the first public show of regret or sadness for a 27-year veteran who had betrayed little emotion in court hearings over the past year.

The judge accepted Sinclair's guilty pleas on several lesser charges in a deal that includes the dropping of sexual assault counts and two others that may have required him to register as a sex offender.

The sentencing hearing for Sinclair, the former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, began Monday afternoon and was expected to last until at least the next day. As many as two-dozen witnesses could be called and Sinclair's lawyer said he will either give a statement or testify.

Ultimately, the judge will give Sinclair a sentence that can't exceed terms in the agreement struck between defense lawyers and military attorneys over the weekend, but has not been made public. The legal agreement is likely to require a punishment far less severe than the maximum penalties of 21 ½ years in prison and dismissal from the Army.

Sinclair's lawyer suggested he might walk out of court a free man, but without a career and perhaps with hundreds of thousands of dollars less in pension benefits.

"I hope he is permitted to retire at a reduced rank and can go home to his family," defense attorney Richard Scheff said before court started Monday.

Sinclair, 51, had been accused of twice forcing the female captain under his command to perform oral sex during the three-year extramarital affair. The Associated Press does not generally identify those who say they were victims of sexual assault.

The married general pleaded guilty earlier this month to having improper relationships with three subordinate officers, including the captain. He also pleaded guilty to adultery, which is a crime in the military.

The most serious accusations went to trial, but the court-martial was halted after the military judge found evidence that there may have been improper influence in a decision to reject a previous plea deal. The new deal was then struck, including Sinclair's admission that his treatment of the captain was "unwarranted, unjustified and unnecessary," broke military law and mentally harmed her.

Sinclair also admitted on Monday to abusing a government credit card he used while traveling to visit his mistress, using indecent language to demean female officers and contacting the accuser after being told not to.

After his plea, prosecutors opened the sentencing by calling the accuser back to the stand. She remains on active duty and was granted an immunity deal with prosecutors in exchange for testimony.

She said her career has suffered because she constantly worries her supervisors are talking about her behind her back and trying to undermine her.

"I'm very guarded now. I have a hard time trusting people. I have a very hard time feeling safe," said the woman, who cried during testimony and occasionally dabbed her eyes with a tissue between questions.

She never looked at Sinclair, but looked directly at prosecutors as she was questioned. When the lawyers would talk directly to the judge between questions, she looked down at her hands.

The female officer's mother testified that since making the accusations, her daughter bought a 95-pound dog for protection and sleeps on her couch in her four-bedroom home with a loaded gun nearby because she is scared.

In court on Monday, Sinclair denied ever putting his hands on the captain in anger. He said about a year into the affair, he began to realize that the captain wanted a complete relationship, while he was not going to leave his wife. Sinclair said the captain was "emotionally invested in a way I was not."

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