By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - An instructor at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas was acquitted by a court martial on Wednesday of wrongful sexual contact with a recruit, one of seven cases in a military sex scandal.
Staff Sergeant Kwinton Estacio, 29, had been charged with sexual assault that could have sent him to prison for 40 years, but a military judge reduced that charge to engaging in unwanted sexual contact with a female recruit.
Earlier this week, Estacio pled guilty to several lesser charges for which he was sentenced to a year in prison and reduced to the lowest rank in the Air Force, according to Lackland spokesman Brent Boller.
He pled guilty to having an unprofessional relationship with a basic trainee, not obeying orders and obstruction of justice, Boller said.
Seven training instructors who conduct the 8-1/2 week basic training program for recruits have been charged in connection with the scandal.
They are among a total of 17 sergeants placed under investigation. Lackland officials say 39 women have come forward to claim they were victims of unwanted sexual attention or abuse from their trainer.
One sergeant was convicted of sexual assault and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Another was convicted of lesser charges and sentenced to 30 days, and a third pled guilty and agreed to cooperate with military prosecutors in exchange for a 90-day sentence.
Meanwhile, the House Armed Services Committee confirmed on Wednesday that it will hold hearings on the issue of the treatment of women in Air Force basic training, as soon as the courts martial are completed.
Nancy Parrish, head of the activist group Protect Our Defenders, which has been calling for Congressional hearings, said the military has to get to the bottom of what she called an "epidemic" of sexual assault in the ranks.
"This is not just a crisis in the training commands, it is throughout the armed forces and has been for decades," she said. "The epidemic of sexual assault in our military must be addressed systematically and this requires Congressional hearings and legislation."
(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Lisa Shumaker)