Prosecutor in Army sex case wanted charges dropped
FORT BRAGG — About a month before a U.S. Army general's trial on sexual assault charges, the lead prosecutor broke down in tears, appearing drunk and suicidal as he told a superior he didn't think the closely watched case should go forward, according to testimony Tuesday.
Lt. Col. William Helixon said he was convinced the accuser had lied about crucial evidence, but thought the case against Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair was of such strategic importance to the military's crackdown on sexual assaults, he felt pressured to pursue it, according to testimony from Brig. Gen. Paul Wilson, who found the prosecutor distraught in a Washington hotel room.
Sinclair faces a court-martial on charges that include physically forcing a female captain under his command to perform oral sex. His attorneys have asked a judge to dismiss the most serious of the charges against him, saying top brass at the Pentagon have unlawfully interfered with prosecutorial decisions in the case, but the judge refused Tuesday.
Helixon was removed from the case last month, and a new prosecutor was assigned to take it to trial, which is set to begin this week.
The case against Sinclair, believed to be the most senior member of the U.S. military ever to face trial for sexual assault, comes as the Pentagon grapples with a troubling string of revelations involving rape and sexual misconduct within the ranks.
Helixon wasn't called to testify, but Wilson took the stand and talked about finding Helixon in the hotel room Feb. 8. Wilson testified Tuesday that Helixon appeared drunk and suicidal, and he was taken for a mental health evaluation.
"He was in the midst of a personal crisis. He was crying. He was illogical," Wilson said. "I truly believed if he could have stepped in front of a bus at the time, I think he would have."
Sinclair, who was the deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne and a rising star among the U.S. Army's top battle commanders, is fighting charges that could land him life in a military prison if convicted. He has pleaded not guilty to eight criminal charges including forcible sodomy, indecent acts, violating orders and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.
Lawyers for the married father of two have said he carried on a three-year extramarital affair with an officer under his command during war tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The admission of an affair will almost certainly end his Army career.
In pretrial hearings, prosecutors painted Sinclair as a sexual predator who abused his position of authority to prey on a subordinate. They also say he threatened to kill her and her family if she told anyone of their relationship.
But the lead prosecutor became convinced the accuser lied to him when she testified in January about evidence collected from her cellphone. The captain testified that on Dec. 9, shortly after what she described as a contentious meeting with prosecutors, she rediscovered an old iPhone stored in a box at her home that still contained saved text messages and voicemails from the general. After charging the phone, she testified she synced it with her computer to save photos before contacting her attorney.
However, a defense expert's examination suggested the captain powered up the device more than two weeks before the meeting with prosecutors. She also tried to make a call and performed a number of other operations.
Wilson testified that Helixon was distraught that the accuser had lied to him.
"I served with him in combat in Afghanistan, making targeting decisions with people's lives on the line. I have never seen another human being in a state like that," he said of their meeting at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington.
Wilson said he took Helixon to the emergency room of a nearby military hospital for a mental health evaluation. Though a psychiatrist who interviewed the prosecutor declined to admit him for treatment, Wilson said he told Helixon's immediate superior back at Fort Bragg that the prosecutor was no longer fit to handle the case.
"He was not fit for any kind of duty. I would not have trusted him to drive a car," Wilson said.
Neither the defense nor prosecutors called Helixon to testify.
Sinclair's defense lawyers suggest it is the general who is the victim, both of a jealous ex-lover and of overzealous prosecutors facing intense pressure from top military and political leaders to send a message that sexual misconduct will not be tolerated.
"We're in a remarkable place," Richard Scheff, Sinclair's lead defense lawyer, said this week. "The chief witness lied under oath. The lead prosecutor resigned because he found her untruthful and non-credible. The Army's senior leaders agree with his assessment. And yet we're going to trial."
The Associated Press does not publicly identify the alleged victims of sexual assaults.
Prosecutors have declined to comment about the case outside court proceedings.
It is extremely rare for such a high-ranking military officer to face a jury. Under the military justice system, members of the panel must be senior in rank to the accused — ensuring that Sinclair will be judged by a jury of generals.