Jeffrey Sinclair & Sexual Assault in the Military

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Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair (L) leaves the Fort Bragg Courthouse with his attorney Ellen Brotman.
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After two long years, the case of Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair, once a rising star in the United States Army, has finally come to a close this week.

General Sinclair, a 27-year Army veteran, was accused of sexual assault by his former mistress, an Army captain. The charges included threats against the captain's family and forced oral sex.

After months of legal wrangling, and some critics allege, legal bungling by the prosecution, General Sinclair has pleaded guilty to much lesser charges: That he disobeyed a commander's order, misused a government credit card, and mistreated the captain.

General Sinclair will learn his sentence later this week, but the growing problem of sexual assault in the military remains. Earlier this month, the Senate defeated U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's bill, which was designed to combat the problem. 

Roger Canaff is a career prosecutor who served as an expert for the Department of the Army from 2009 to 2012. Canaff assisted military prosecutors in investigating and prosecuting sexual assault cases, and he examines the Sinclair case, its consequences and how the military should move forward on the issue of sexual assault.

"It's an extremely unusual case because the accused is such a high-ranking official," says Canaff. "Misconduct at that level, or at least misconduct that is detected, is very, very rare."

While Canaff says there are no other comparable cases to that of Brig. Gen. Sinclair, he does believe it is emblematic of a "sense of entitlement" that higher ranking officials have. 

"Somebody like Sinclair thinks that he is all powerful and that he can get away with anything," says Canaff. "I'm sure he was quite surprised that the individual who accused him actually came forward and was willing to express anything to anyone."

When examining military culture, Canaff says one can see several reasons why victims do not come forward. For starters, Canaff says that military culture takes away a sense of individuality and encourages compliance. Because the military conditions people in this way, Canaff says that even when victims feel wronged, there is a sense that speaking up could disrupt a mission or unit.

"There's just a sense of duty with a lot of military folks—they just don't feel that it's a good idea and they prefer to keep it inside and heel internally, if they can," says Canaff. 

Leaving out the accusations of sexual assault, the relationship between Brig. General Sinclair and his former mistress was illegal—Sinclair was married, and adultery in the military is a crime. While this example of adultery shows a case of a relationship gone bad, Canaff hopes that in the end, a positive result will come from this case.

"Hopefully the ripple effect is a positive one in that individuals at, particularly at Sinclair's level, will understand that that's just behavior that won't be tolerated," he says. "I think Sinclair is just a very toxic person who took advantage of a situation. He had a tremendous amount of power over this captain—the power relationship between a general officer and young captain is really remarkable. I know there are plenty of people, and plenty of people in the media, who are sort of casting these characters as equal players in a romance gone bad. I don't believe that to be the case."

Canaff says that in addition to initiating an adulterous relationship with a young officer, Sinclair also committed serious crimes against her.

"Regardless of the fact that he won't stand convicted of those, I do hope that the ripple effect is one that discourages any kind of behavior anywhere near what he's done," says Canaff.

Brig. Gen. Sinclair is pleading guilty to adultery and mistreating his accuser. The plea deal ensures that the sexual assault charges against him are dropped. Chanaff says that he believes that the victim actually never wanted to see Gen. Sinclair have to register as a sex offender, which Sinclair would have had to do had he pled to or been found guilty of any of the sex charges that were before him.

"I think the process had just exhausted her," says Canaff, who added that victim likely was likely OK with the plea deal because she wanted to move on from the case. "There's always pressure to resolve cases in the civilian world, as well as the military world. I also think that, given this case where you have an individual as high-ranking as General Sinclair, there's even more pressure to resolve the case and get it behind everybody. It's very, very difficult to try a senior officer—you need a military jury, which is called a panel. You need a panel of people who are at least of equal rank to him. It's just a logistical nightmare to try cases like this."

Though the case was resolved through this plea, and something that was likely desired by both sides, Canaff doesn't believe justice was carried out.

"I think the woman at the center of this case was victimized—that is simply my personal belief, and I'm not speaking for the Army or for anybody else," he says. "I think that she has a valid complaint. I don't think justice was done in her case. I think it's unfortunate, but I don't blame anybody for it—I think the prosecution team did their best and I think the defense did its duty. In terms of going forward, clearly everyone is well advised in the military to avoid these kind of romantic situations. But a romantic situation and some unfortunate judgement is one thing. Being sexually victimized by a very powerful man is another."