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In historic court-martial, an Air Force general was found not guilty of sexual assault

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

This weekend, a landmark military court case wrapped up in San Antonio. A two-star Air Force general was accused of sexually assaulting a female officer under his command, and he chose to face a jury of his fellow generals. Maj. Gen. Philip Stewart is the first general ever to face a court martial jury trial on such charges. He was found not guilty on the most serious charge.

Texas Public Radio's Gabriella Alcorta-Solorio has been covering the court-martial from Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio and joins us now. Hey. Thanks for joining us.

GABRIELLA ALCORTA-SOLORIO, BYLINE: Hi. Glad to be here.

DETROW: So tell us more about the case and what Maj. Gen. Stewart was accused of.

ALCORTA-SOLORIO: So this court-martial stemmed from a relationship between Stewart and a subordinate officer last year. At this time, he was commander of the San Antonio-based 19th Air Force, which oversees training and requires travel to bases across the country. The unnamed officer testified that during those trips to Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma, she was invited to the general's quarters for a glass of wine. She went, and then she felt she had no choice but to submit to him sexually because of his rank. And she also said that she failed to prevent Stewart from drinking alcohol within 12 hours of flying an aircraft, which is illegal.

Stewart never denied the encounter. He admitted to it being inappropriate, but he said it was consensual. Even so, that's still a violation of military code of conduct.

DETROW: So there was that big charge of sexual assault. But I understand he pleaded guilty to two of the lesser charges before the trial began?

ALCORTA-SOLORIO: Yeah. So Stewart pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty and extramarital sexual conduct. On one of the more serious charges, the ones which the jury was deciding on, he faced up to 60 years in prison. He was ultimately acquitted of the sexual assault charge but was found guilty of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a separate dereliction of duty charge.

DETROW: Tell us - I mean, this was a court-martial case. The jury selection was unique. Tell us more about that.

ALCORTA-SOLORIO: So in a court-martial, the regulation calls for the panel members - the jury in this case - to be the same rank or higher of the person accused. Maj. Gen. Stewart is a high-ranking officer. Like, a two star's among the highest of any military branch. So it took time to find enough three-star generals to come to Fort Sam Houston and sit on this panel. Given that he faced a jury of fellow generals, there was a concern that Stewart was not going to be held accountable.

DETROW: So given that, what penalty is Stewart facing here?

ALCORTA-SOLORIO: So as of yesterday, Stewart was reprimanded, restricted to Randolph Air Force Base for two months and ordered to forfeit $60,000 of pay over six months. Before the trial, he was removed from the 19th Air Force command, but he still remains an officer at the Air Education and Training Command in San Antonio. He did express remorse during the trial, and he does get to keep his rank for now. As for the woman officer, she said this experience had changed the trajectory of her life, and she no longer has aspirations to be in the military. She's retiring in November.

DETROW: This all happened in the context of the military recently changing the way that it handles sexual assault cases. How did that affect the case?

ALCORTA-SOLORIO: So the military had to change its way in how it prosecuted sexual crimes following the high-profile death of an Army specialist in 2020 who was killed after being sexually harassed on her base in Texas. The Vanessa Guillen Act of 2021 requires that reporting be taken out of the chain of command, and it created what's called a special trials counsel. In this instance, Gen. Stewart's case had already had initial trial hearings, so he was sent to a court-martial by his commander. His case should be one of the last to be held under the old military law.

DETROW: That is Texas Public Radio's Gabriella Alcorta-Solorio. Thank you so much.

ALCORTA-SOLORIO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Gabriella Alcorta-Solorio