By Larry Shaughnessy
The general at the center of a military and legal controversy is telling his side of the story for the first time since throwing out the sexual assault conviction of an Air Force officer.
Lt. Colonel James Wilkerson III was found guilty last year by a jury of Air Force officers of sexually assaulting a woman at his home outside Aviano Air Base in Italy.
He spent four months in a Navy brig before Lt. General Craig Franklin, the convening authority in the case, threw out the verdict.
Franklin was the officer who ordered Wilkerson's court martial at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. But military law allowed him to have the final say.
"After considering all matters in the entire record of trial, I hold a genuine and reasonable doubt that Lt. Col. Wilkerson committed the crime of sexual assault," Franklin said in a letter to the Air Force secretary released publicly this week.
Pentagon officials told CNN that it is rare for charges to be dismissed in this manner. Still, it comes as the Defense Department struggles with an epidemic of sexual assault in the military.
The decision angered victims' rights groups and some members of Congress.
"I am extremely disturbed." said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, who chaired a hearing last month on the issue. "I don't know how you can say that having 19,000 sexual assaults and rapes a year is discipline and order."
Much of the anger in Congress was focused on why Franklin, a pilot by training, overturned a verdict reached in a case in which military lawyers acted as defense counsel, prosecutors and judge.
Franklin reviewed the case over a three-week period and used his authority under Article 60 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
He detailed why he felt Wilkerson was wrongly convicted, spelling out in his letter 18 problems with the prosecution's case.
- "When shown clear photos of all the bedrooms of the house, the alleged victim could not identify the bed in which she slept and/or where she claimed the alleged assault occurred."
- "The alleged victim did not remember whether or not the man who she says assaulted her had facial hair. In addition, she said his face was only six inches away from hers." Wilkerson had a full mustache.
- "The woman who took the alleged victim to the hospital the day after the attack wrote a "letter of clemency (in support of Wilkerson)."
- "At different times, the alleged victim's description of the hours leading up to the alleged assault varied."
At the hearing chaired by Gillibrand, the Pentagon's top lawyer hinted that it may be time to change the law that allows a convening authority to just throw out a conviction.
On Monday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asked Congress to pass a law "eliminating the discretion for a convening authority to change the findings of a court-martial, except for certain minor offenses that would not ordinarily warrant trial by court-martial."
That won't have any impact on the Wilkerson case. His conviction cannot be reinstated.