By Kelly Twedell
FORT BRAGG, North Carolina (Reuters) - A female U.S. Army lieutenant testified on Tuesday that a married general who admitted to having inappropriate relationships with her and other junior officers became angry after she declined his invitation for a horseback riding date.
The invitation is among evidence against Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair in a case that has focused attention on sexual misconduct in the U.S. military and could lead to jail time for the airborne infantry officer who served five combat tours.
"Something didn't seem right," the lieutenant said of Sinclair's advances, adding through tears that the criminal case resulting from his actions took a toll on her reputation.
The female lieutenant, whose identity was withheld by Reuters due to the nature of the charges, was one of the prosecution witnesses who testified at Sinclair's sentencing hearing at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. As part of an agreement with the government, he pleaded guilty on Monday to mistreating a female captain during an adulterous sexual affair.
Sinclair earlier this month admitted to conduct unbecoming an officer for his interactions with the lieutenant, with whom he said he "got too personal."
The general's defense team on Tuesday afternoon began to make their case against Sinclair serving jail time for his military crimes. Many of the 20 witnesses they planned to call served with Sinclair during his 27-year career.
"I believe pretty heavily in redemption," testified retired Lieutenant Colonel Jamie Gough, a defense witness who said he served with Sinclair in Germany and Iraq. "I understand he made a big mistake here, but he is an inspirational leader."
Lead defense attorney Richard Scheff said the military judge who will sentence Sinclair will be read a letter written by the general's wife, who has not attended her husband's trial.
Sinclair, 51, a father of two, avoided a possible life term in prison through a plea deal that dismissed sexual assault charges he faced after a captain under his command said he forced her to perform oral sex when she tried to end their illicit affair.
Charges that he had sex with her in a parking lot in Germany and on a hotel balcony in Arizona, and that he threatened to kill her if she exposed the relationship, also were dropped.
But the one-star general's admissions that he asked junior female officers for nude photos, possessed pornography on his laptop while deployed in Afghanistan, misused his government credit card to pursue the affair and referred to female officers with demeaning names could still land him in prison.
The plea deal put a cap on the possible penalties, but those terms were not disclosed.
Sinclair's defense lawyers have argued the general should be allowed to retire at a reduced rank, saying his rare court-martial of a top officer was the result of political pressure on U.S. military leaders to show they were taking a tough stance against rising sexual violence in the armed forces.
In court, government attorneys have said they believed the captain's allegations of sex crimes. But the defense said on Tuesday that a prosecutor in the case told them he felt the government had overreached with the initial charges.
The general's main accuser gave tearful testimony about their volatile three-year affair that spanned two war zones and posts in the United States. The trial was halted last week before the defense had a chance to cross-examine her account, which they decried as untrue.
The military judge delayed the court-martial and allowed Sinclair to renew his plea offer after ruling that politics appeared to have improperly influenced the Army's decision to reject an earlier offer by the general to plead guilty if the charges of coercive sex acts were dropped.
Sinclair, who maintained he never forced sex, admitted as part of the plea agreement to causing the captain emotional harm. The captain's attorneys said in a statement that she accepted the plea bargain but stood by her allegations of sexual assault.
(Additional reporting and writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Tom Brown and Andrew Hay)