FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — As jury selection got underway Tuesday for a U.S. Army general facing court martial on sexual assault charges, the challenges of seating an impartial panel to decide the case quickly became apparent.
Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair has pleaded not guilty to eight criminal charges including forcible sodomy, indecent acts, violating orders and adultery. Most of the charges stem from a three year affair with a female captain who says Sinclair twice forced her to perform oral sex while she served under his command in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is extremely rare for a general officer to face criminal charges. Under the military justice system, jurors assigned to determine guilt or innocence must be of higher rank than the accused.
In Sinclair’s case, that dictates a jury drawn from the Army’s most elite leaders. By Congressional mandate, the Army is capped at 230 general officers. It was not immediately clear how many are currently superior in rank to Sinclair, but the jury pool is much smaller than it would be in a civilian trial.
Of the dozen potential jurors who filed into the courtroom at Fort Bragg on Tuesday, all wore two or three stars on their shoulders. Only one, Lt. Gen. Patricia McQuistion, is a woman.
A minimum of five jurors must be seated to proceed to trial, currently scheduled to begin Sept. 30.
Though an attempt had already been made to exclude those who have served directly with Sinclair during his 27 years in the Army, several jurors quickly indicated Tuesday that they know the accused either professionally or socially.
Maj. Gen. Jefforey Smith, commander of the U.S. Army Cadet Command, said he served as a mentor to Sinclair during a 2008 war tour in Iraq. Asked how he would rate Sinclair’s performance as an officer, Smith replied: “Superb.”
All of the jurors also knew some of the 143 potential witnesses named so far by the prosecution and defense. The list includes another 14 current or retired generals and a full flock of colonels and lieutenant colonels.
McQuistion, the deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army Materiel Command, said her former aide-de-camp is on the witness list. She also disclosed that a female relative was the victim of an unreported rape, which could prompt the defense to challenge her inclusion on the jury.
Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, commander of the Army’s V Corps, questioned whether he should serve on the jury because he is close friends with Lt. Gen. James Huggins, a key witness whose credibility is likely to be attacked by the defense team.
“I may have some bias,” Terry told the judge.
Lt. Gen. Keith Walker, a 37-year Army veteran, said he knows 14 of the potential witnesses and currently serves as the direct supervisor of another potential juror, Maj. Gen. William Hix.
All of the potential jurors said they had seen or read media coverage of the accusations against Sinclair, or in some cases discussed the case with fellow generals.
Following a series of recent sexual assault and harassment revelations involving military personnel, President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and key members of Congress have spoken about the need to seek out and punish sexual predators in uniform.
Walker said the message of zero tolerance for sexual abuse has been received loud and clear by the Army brass.
“We have a problem we need to address,” said Walker, a deputy commanding general at the Army Training and Doctrine Command. “We have folks who are predators, and those predators know how the system works. That makes them hard to find.”
Defense lawyer Richard Scheff questioned whether any Army general, directly answerable to elected civilian leaders, could vote to acquit his client for fear of potential damage to their careers.
Scheff noted the case of U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Susan Helms, whose nomination to serve as vice commander of the U.S. Space Command was placed on indefinite hold by Sen. Claire McCaskill. Helms drew the ire of the Missouri Democrat by overruling a military jury’s conviction of captain who had been found guilty of aggravated sexual assault of a female lieutenant.
Potential Sinclair juror Maj. Gen. Anthony “Tony” Cocolo told the court Tuesday he had already been twice denied promotion for a third star because of opposition from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
As commander of the 3rd Infantry Division in 2009, Cocolo triggered a media firestorm by issuing a written order telling female troops serving in Iraq they would face reprimand if they became pregnant while deployed.
Though he said he wouldn’t want his presence on the panel to be a distraction, Cocolo said he could judge Sinclair’s case fairly and without fear of political retribution.
“I’m absolutely at home with controversy,” he said.
Jury selection is set to continue at Fort Bragg on Wednesday.
Follow Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck