By Tabassum Zakaria
ARLINGTON, Virginia (Reuters) - A charge of sexual battery against a U.S. Air Force officer, in a case that became a symbol of the problem of military sex crimes, was dropped on Thursday and the prosecutor instead will pursue a charge of assault and battery.
Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Krusinski was chief of the Air Force sexual assault prevention and response branch when he was arrested in May and accused of groping a woman in a parking lot near the Pentagon.
"After a closer investigation of the facts and a review of the status of the case law, the more appropriate charge is the assault and battery, not the sexual battery charge," Theo Stamos, the prosecutor, told Reuters. She declined to comment about the evidence in the case.
The case was highly embarrassing for the Pentagon and came in the same week that it reported unwanted sexual contact complaints involving military personnel jumped 37 percent last year.
Krusinski's attorney, Barry Coburn, said the initial charge of a sex offense was the reason why the case made headlines, and he praised the prosecution for exercising "care and judgment" in dropping the sexual battery charge.
"Charging decisions such as this one must be based on the facts and the law of each individual case, not on politics or the desire to have a 'teachable moment' concerning issues such as sexual abuse in the military," Coburn said.
Krusinski, who was at the court proceeding, did not make any comment to reporters. After he was accused of sexual battery he was moved to another military personnel job.
Both the old and the new charges are misdemeanors and carry the same penalties of up to 12 months in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,500.
The prosecution expects to present the case to a grand jury on August 19 and if, as expected, an indictment is returned, a trial date would be set in Arlington Circuit Court, lawyers said.
The Air Force would not comment on the latest development in the case because it is being handled in civilian court.
Separately, the Air Force said on Thursday that airmen who commit sexual assault will be discharged from the service as part of new initiatives to combat the problem. The decision went into effect on July 2, the Air Force said.
(Reporting by Tabassum Zakaria; Additional reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Eric Beech)