A high-profile sexual assault case that has been a touchstone in the debate over how to handle military sexual assault “came apart on Monday,” according to a lengthy report from the New York Times. The case has received a huge amount of national media attention both because of the high rank of the accused, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, and because the process of prosecuting him has been combed over by everyone with a stake in the debate over whether to strip commanders of their power to determine how sexual assault accusations are handled. It was recently revealed, in fact, that the lawyer for the accuser appealed to Lt. Gen. James Anderson, who is overseeing the case, to reject a plea deal from Sinclair on the grounds that it would weaken the Army’s case to the public about why it should retain control over sexual assault prosecutions. He did, in fact, end up rejecting the plea deal.
In the end, however, the case against Sinclair appears to be falling apart for reasons that have little to do with all the complex political machinations around it. Since the beginning, Sinclair’s lawyers have been using the “woman scorned” defense, arguing that the accuser, a captain who worked under Sinclair, made up the allegations that Sinclair forced her to perform oral sex because she was angry at him for not leaving his wife for her. Also, they argue, she floated the allegations after she was threatened with a charge of adultery, which is illegal in the military, suggesting that she saw a rape accusation as an easy way out. The accuser and Sinclair had been conducting a three-year affair, which the defense emphasizes was consensual, with diary entries from the accuser testifying to her great love for Sinclair and her fear he was still emotionally involved with his wife as evidence. The prosecution contends that the two incidents of forced oral sex, which are alleged to have happened in Afghanistan, were part of an abusive and controlling pattern of behavior from Sinclair toward the accuser.
The defense’s case was strengthened on Monday when the alleged victim was seemingly caught in a lie. An old iPhone belonging to her recently turned up, and, unsurprisingly, it has texts and other communications on it that the defense can use to bolster its case that the relationship was consensual. The accuser told a detailed story about finding this phone and turning it right over to the lawyers, but a forensics expert testified that she had charged and restarted the phone two weeks before claiming to have found it.
It’s hard to imagine this case playing out any differently if Sinclair and his accuser were civilians. There would still be ample evidence that the accuser loved the accused when they were together, which the defense could use to cast doubt on her claims of sexual abuse. There would still be a lack of witnesses, as the alleged abuse went down in private. The defense would still benefit strongly from negative stereotypes of women as petty, vindictive, and willing to cry “rape” at the drop of a hat to punish a man for rejecting her. While there are likely a lot of benefits to removing the military’s strong presence and its political concerns from the process of prosecuting alleged rapists, these larger cultural issues mean that prosecuting rape will still be an uphill battle, regardless of venue. (The judge overseeing the case has given Sinclair another opportunity to work with prosecutors on a plea deal, citing the role that undue political influence likely played in the first attempt at a plea deal, so it wouldn’t be right to say that politics has played no role in the final outcome of this trial.)
We can’t know for a fact what happened between Sinclair and the accuser during their three-year affair. The fact that she appears in her phone messages and diary entries to be a woman besotted says nothing. It’s fairly common for domestic violence victims to be in love with their abusers and to make excuses for abuse, even abuse as serious as sexual assault. But there is always the possibility that she is lying, and that possibility got stronger with the discovery of this iPhone. These are the problems that face cases like this, in both military and civilian courts.