AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
A U.S. Army general accused of sexual assault will not face jail time. Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair was sentenced today at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Sinclair could have faced a prison term of up to 18 months as part of a plea deal. Instead, he'll receive a letter of reprimand and a $20,000 fine. Some members of Congress and victims' advocates are outraged at what they see as a leniency of the sentence. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins me now to talk about what happened.
So, Tom, was this sentence a surprise?
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Not only is the price, Audie, but people I talk with are actually stunned by it. Now, the defense basically agreed in the plea deal, now with prosecutors, that General Sinclair should face jail time, which is probably why the defense lawyer was heard to say wow when the sentence was announced by a military judge this morning.
CORNISH: Now, all these observers expected obviously a harsher sentence. And is that because this was such a notorious case?
BOWMAN: Right. There's been so much attention on sexual assault in the military over the past year or so and this case was considered exhibit A of the problem of sexual assault. Now, here you have a general officer being court martial, the first ever for sexual assault, and only the third general ever to face prosecution. And then you had the main accuser who was an Army captain. And also, the general had inappropriate relationships with two other women officers.
Now, beyond this, beyond the charges, I just mentioned, he threatened to kill the main accuser or her family if she ever told anyone about the affair. So there was a sense in the Army, listen, we have to get a conviction in this case.
CORNISH: But then the case fell apart. So what happened?
BOWMAN: Well, the main problem was the accuser had credibility problems. Among them, there was evidence that she continued the affair after the date she said Sinclair had assaulted her. So instead of serious sexual assault charges, you ended up with lesser charges including maltreatment of an officer, misuse of a government credit card, and adultery.
Now, as a result, he's not facing jail time. He's not being dismissed from the Army. He will have to retire. And now, a retirement board will likely reduce him in rank from brigadier general to lieutenant colonel. Now that means he could lose pension payments over the rest of his life. Some say the amount could be as high as $800,000.
CORNISH: But bottom-line, he loses some pension, gets a reprimand letter and pays a fine. I mean, tell us more about the reaction to this.
BOWMAN: Well, I spoke to several military lawyers today. One said the Army is shooting itself in the foot when it comes to sexual harassment. Another said the general made out like a bandit. I spoke to some victims' advocates who said this shows that the system is all about cronyism.
And this from Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who's been at forefront of trying to make changes in the military justice system. She said, quote, "This case has illustrated a military justice system in dire need of independence from the chain of command." And she goes on to say, the system needs reform.
Now, you could see renewed efforts now in Congress to push for some sort of an independent military prosecution away from the chain of command, which is what Senator Gillibrand tried to do. She almost made it but lost by just five votes.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thank you.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
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