FORT BRAGG, North Carolina (Reuters) - The key military decision-maker in the rare court-martial of a U.S. Army general accused of sexual assault said on Monday that political pressure did not influence his actions in the case, but defence attorneys argued new evidence proved otherwise.
Questions about whether the criminal proceedings against Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair were improperly swayed by outside influences halted testimony that had been expected from the main accuser in the case.
The woman, an Army captain, was to be questioned by defence attorneys about her tearful account last week that the married superior officer twice forced her to engage in oral sex when she tried to break off their secret three-year affair.
The military judge hearing the case at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, instead dismissed jurors for the day and took up a motion that Sinclair's attorneys filed after the government disclosed new email evidence over the weekend.
Lead defence attorney Richard Scheff said emails between military officials at Fort Bragg showed the prosecution of Sinclair was driven by political pressure to crack down on sexual violence in the armed forces rather than by the strength of the evidence.
Sinclair's defence has said he offered to plead guilty to adultery, which is a crime in the military, and conduct unbecoming of an officer in exchange for the sex assault charges being dropped.
Scheff said the convening authority in the case, Lieutenant General Joseph Anderson, rejected the offer after the accuser's special victims counsel warned Anderson in a letter in December that the guilty plea "would have an adverse effect on my client and the Army's fight against sexual assault."
Emails provided to the defence made it "crystal clear that that affected General Anderson's decision," the attorney added.
The judge, Colonel James Pohl, voiced frustration that government emails written as long as two months ago and previously sought by the defence were only coming to light in the middle of the trial. He questioned why prosecutors should be allowed to call Anderson as a witness after they rejected such a request from Sinclair's lawyers.
Anderson, who now commands international forces in Afghanistan, testified by phone from the Swedish embassy in Kabul.
He did not recall reading the letter from the accuser's attorney, though an email he wrote in December suggested he had, and said neither its political contents nor anyone above him in the chain of command persuaded him to reject Sinclair's plea offer.
"I asked one simple question, what does the victim want to do, and the answer was she wants to proceed to trial," Anderson testified. "That's what I based my decision on."
Pohl took a recess to consider whether outside influences had improperly infused the case. The defence is seeking to have the sex charges dismissed. The judge also raised the possibility of a mistrial.
Sinclair pleaded guilty last week to lesser offenses that carry a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and possible dismissal from the Army. The general denies sexually assaulting the captain 17 years his junior and says the relationship was consensual, although inappropriate by military standards.
The 34-year-old woman on Friday recounted her rocky relationship with Sinclair, who as a result of her accusations faces a forcible sodomy charge that could send the 51-year-old general to prison for life.
He is also accused of grabbing her genitalia against her will and of having sex with her in public, charges that saw him removed from command in southern Afghanistan in 2012.
The one-star general's defence lawyers were scheduled to begin their cross-examination of the captain on Monday. The defence said her testimony about Sinclair's alleged violations of military law differed from her past representations.
(Editing by David Adams, Bernadette Baum and Jonathan Oatis)