By Kelly Twedell
FORT BRAGG, North Carolina (Reuters) - Lawyers for a U.S. Army general accused of forcing a subordinate to have sex will be allowed to inspect his chief accuser's old cellphones, which she has said were recently found, a military judge ruled on Tuesday.
Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair is due to stand trial on sex charges in March in a rare court-martial for an officer of his high rank. He has pleaded not guilty to charges including forcible sodomy and wrongful sexual conduct.
The proceedings against him were delayed last month after the main accuser in the case, a female Army captain who worked in Sinclair's unit in Afghanistan and had a three-year affair with the married general, gave prosecutors a broken iPhone that she said she found at the bottom of an unpacked moving box.
Sinclair's attorneys argued the phone, along with several others in her possession, should have been provided in 2012 after Sinclair was criminally charged and removed from his command in Afghanistan.
The defense called the accuser's credibility into question. A computer forensics expert hired by Sinclair's team testified that the iPhone was turned on two weeks earlier than the date the woman recalled having restarted it.
The woman said she had used the phone while she was still in communication with Sinclair, but dropped it and cracked its screen sometime in 2012.
Finding the phone last month brought back a flood of emotions, she said. The phone still had old voicemails on it from Sinclair, who is accused of forcing her to perform oral sex against her wishes on two occasions.
He is also accused of eliciting nude photos from other female subordinates.
"I was overwhelmed with what I found on the phone and I was not able to think clearly," she said.
The full contents of the phone were not revealed during the hearing.
A special victims lawyer assigned to the accuser argued that inspection of her old cellphones invaded the woman's privacy, but military prosecutors did not object to the evidence being reviewed.
Colonel James Pohl, the military judge, said defense lawyers could have a total of six electronic devices provided by the accuser inspected but blocked them from having access to a laptop in her possession.
Sinclair's lead attorney, Richard Scheff, called the hearing "a game-changer," and said the case against Sinclair had lost credibility due to the accuser's delay in providing the evidence.
(Reporting by Kelly Twedell, writing by Colleen Jenkins; editing by Barbara Goldberg, G Crosse)