FORT BRAGG, North Carolina (Reuters) - The trial of a U.S. Army general charged with sexual assault was delayed indefinitely after the prosecution's case hit a stumbling block when a judge ruled that politics fuelled the decision to court-martial the military commander.
On Tuesday morning, a military judge excused the jury of five generals who will return to their bases, including one stationed in South Korea. The judge did not schedule a restart date.
The judge, Colonel James Pohl, found on Monday that politics had been unlawfully injected into the rare court-martial of Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair, but refused to dismiss the sexual assault charges.
Sinclair was charged with forcible sodomy based on allegations by a female U.S. Army captain that could send the 51-year-old general to prison for life.
The judge said he would allow Sinclair to renew a previous offer, rejected by military leaders at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to plead guilty to lesser charges in exchange for the most serious allegations of coercive sex acts being dropped.
Sinclair's lead lawyer, Richard Scheff, said the defence and prosecutors had begun discussing how the case would proceed but it could be several weeks before they return to court.
"None of our positions have changed. If we cannot resolve this case that's great, if we can try it we will defend the general vigorously," Scheff said.
Military prosecutors declined to comment.
The judge ruled that Sinclair's plea offer was only rejected after improper consideration was given to a letter in December from the main accuser's lawyer that invoked politics while urging them to deny the offer.
Scheff said the convening authority in the case, Lieutenant General Joseph Anderson, rejected the offer after the accuser's lawyer warned Anderson in the letter that it "would have an adverse effect on my client and the Army's fight against sexual assault."
The letter from the lawyer, Captain Cassie Fowler, also referred to a debate among U.S. lawmakers about whether prosecution decisions in sexual assault cases should be removed from military commanders.
Last week, the 34-year-old woman who accused Sinclair gave tearful testimony, describing how Sinclair twice forced her to engage in oral sex when she tried to break off their secret three-year-long affair. She said Sinclair threatened to kill her if she told anyone about the relationship.
The married general denies sexually assaulting the captain 17 years his junior and says the relationship was consensual, although inappropriate by military standards.
The general pleaded guilty last week to lesser offenses that carry a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and possible dismissal from the Army, but his attorneys said they could move to withdraw that plea after the events on Monday.
Sinclair is accused of grabbing the captain's genitalia against her will and of having sex with her in public, charges that saw him removed from command in southern Afghanistan in 2012.
(Editing by David Adams and Grant McCool)