By Kelly Twedell
FORT BRAGG, North Carolina (Reuters) - Army Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair's court-martial on a sexual assault charge that could send him to prison for life got under way on Tuesday, one of the few such proceedings against a top U.S. military officer in recent decades.
Sinclair, a 51-year-old married father of two, is accused of twice forcing oral sex during a three-year affair he admitted to having with a junior female officer, including during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The allegations saw him removed from his command in Afghanistan in 2012 and sent home to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where the closely watched trial is being held.
The court-martial takes place as the Department of Defense has struggled to deal with a spate of high-profile cases of sexual assault, including some involving personnel charged with combating the crime.
President Barack Obama has ordered military leaders to review the problem, which came into sharp focus after an annual Pentagon study released last May estimated that incidents of unwanted sexual contact, from groping to rape, jumped 37 percent in 2012 to 26,000 cases from 19,000 the previous year.
In addition to the most serious charge of forcible sodomy against Sinclair, prosecutors accuse him of seeking nude photos from several other female soldiers and possessing pornography while deployed, among other crimes.
Sinclair, who has served five combat tours during his almost 30-year Army career, denies ever engaging in non-consensual sex and says he never threatened to harm the junior officer if she exposed the affair or used his rank to coerce subordinates.
His defense team argues that text messages show that a loving relationship between the general and the now 34-year-old Army captain fractured when she became jealous of his interactions with his wife and another female soldier.
QUESTIONS OVER POLITICS
The proceedings on Tuesday focused on a motion by Sinclair's attorneys to dismiss all charges because they say top military leaders have improperly injected themselves into the case.
Defense attorney Richard Scheff testified that the former lead prosecutor, who abruptly resigned less than a month before the trial, told him politics and outside pressures were driving the case.
Scheff said the prosecutor, Lieutenant Colonel William Helixon, felt Sinclair was a war hero who should be allowed to retire rather than be prosecuted for sex crimes in a case plagued by weak evidence and questions about the key accuser's credibility.
Military officials offered a different account. Lieutenant Colonel Jerrett Dunlap, a staff judge advocate, said Helixon "looked distraught" during a meeting last month in which the lawyer disclosed serious personal health and family problems.
He said Helixon believed Sinclair was guilty of the sexual assault offenses but felt the charges would be hard to prove at trial and should be dismissed for tactical reasons.
"There were moral concerns going forward, but he made it clear that he was free to ethically go forward," Dunlap testified, adding that Helixon's resignation was "more of a gut thing."
In court documents filed last week, the new lead prosecutor, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Stelle, said the military's refusal to accept Sinclair's offer to plead guilty to adultery and conduct unbecoming of an officer had nothing to do with outside influence.
A panel of five generals with higher rank than Sinclair will sit as jurors in the case this month.
Sinclair's wife, Rebecca, spoke out early in the case about the toll recent wars had taken on military marriages, but she will not attend the trial, Scheff said, noting, "It's a painful thing for her."
(Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Scott Malone, Sofina Mirza-Reid and Jonathan Oatis)