FORT BRAGG, N.C. — An Army captain at the center of one of the military’s most closely watched sexual-assault cases testified Friday that a general twice forced her to perform oral sex on him during their three-year, illicit affair.
Taking the stand on the first day of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair’s court-martial, the woman said the assaults happened in Afghanistan in late 2011 as she grew increasingly despondent over their adulterous relationship.
Sinclair, the 51-year-old former deputy commander of the storied 82nd Airborne Division, is believed to be the highest-ranking U.S. military officer ever court-martialed on sexual assault charges. He could get life in prison if found guilty.
The trial is unfolding with the Pentagon under heavy pressure to confront rape and other sexual misconduct in the ranks that even the military has called epidemic. On Thursday, the Senate rejected a bill that would have stripped commanders of authority to decide whether to prosecute serious crimes.
Sinclair’s accuser testified that the first assault took place in her office in Kandahar when she told him how she hated her life, hated working for him and believed the general was just using her for sex.
“He grabbed me by the back of the neck and pushed me down. I tried to pull back, and he put his other hand on my shoulder,” she said. “It felt disgusting. It felt like I had no control over my body.”
She said the second assault took place in his office days later after she asked him to move her to another job.
Asked why she did not come forward and report the two episodes until March 2012, she said: “I knew if I said anything, it would be my word against his and no one would believe me. I had no way out.”
She is expected to return to the stand Monday for cross-examination by the defense.
Earlier Friday, she testified in detail about how the affair developed, and said that Sinclair threatened to kill her and her family – and “do it in a way no one would ever know” – if she ever told anyone about their relationship.
She was given immunity in exchange for her testimony. Adultery is a crime under military law.
In opening statements, prosecutor Lt. Col. Robert Stelle painted Sinclair as a man who used his authority to intimidate and coerce a female officer nearly 20 years his junior into sex.
Defense lawyers portrayed Sinclair as the victim of a desperately infatuated woman who became angry when she discovered that another woman had sent the general an email that closed with “I love you.”
The defense also contends Sinclair is the target of overzealous prosecutors under political pressure to make an example of him, despite weak evidence and an accuser with a history of telling lies.
Defense attorney Ellen C. Brotman began her opening statement by reading the jury – composed of five two-star generals – excerpts from the woman’s diary, written during the affair.
Even after he was alleged to have threatened to kill her loved ones, she wrote of her desire for him, Brotman said, and the only fear she expressed was that he might still love his wife.
“I’m so in love with him,” Brotman read from the diary. “I do know that I love him incredibly. … I love him almost unconditionally.”
The woman and Sinclair exchanged thousands of text messages, often sexually explicit, according to the defense, and she sent messages even after he tried to break it off.
Their relationship began in Iraq in 2009. He was her direct commander, a paratrooper revered for bravery under fire. She was a young intelligence officer and Arabic linguist, assigned to accompany him on trips to meet Iraqi leaders.
She said that after months of conversation and flirtation, she went to his quarters late one night. He asked her to put down her hair, which she typically wore in a bun while in uniform. She complied, and he began stroking her hair. They kissed that night, and the relationship soon evolved into frequent sexual liaisons.
She testified that he often spoke of his wife and children and that he described his spouse as an open-minded woman who understood he needed to have sex while overseas. She said she assumed Sinclair had told his wife about her.
Once, after sex, the captain testified, the general told her that she reminded him of his wife, and she replied that she looked forward to meeting her. The captain said Sinclair sharply told her that his wife could never know about their affair.
“He told me that if I ever told her or anyone else about he and I, he would kill me and then he would kill my family,” the witness said. “And he would do it in a way no one would ever know.”
Still, the woman admitted, she continued to have sex with him.
On Thursday, Sinclair pleaded guilty to adultery and other charges that could send him to prison for up to 15 years. His lawyers are hoping the plea will limit some of the salacious evidence and reduce the case to his word against hers.