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Air Force general's sex assault case is one of the last to be handled under old military law

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart, 19th Air Force commander, greets Airmen at the 54th Operations Support Squadron at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, Sep. 28, 2022.
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U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart, 19th Air Force commander, greets Airmen at the 54th Operations Support Squadron at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, Sep. 28, 2022.

The Office of Special Trials Council began operations late last year, as a part of the new military law enforced after the tragic death of Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen.

Guillen was slain on Fort Cavazos in 2020 after being sexually harassed. The uproar from fellow servicemembers, veterans and her family caused the shift in the way the military handles sexual abuse cases.

Before, commanders would handle the cases and reports some viewed as problematic. Due to this, the OSTC is in place and is an independent organization within the Pentagon that handles cases of sexual assault, domestic abuse and murder.

Cases are now being processed through the OSTC since early this year, and now the case of an Air Force two-star general is the last of the cases being handled under the old law.

Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart is being charged with alleged sexual assault of a female subordinate in his command. He is only the second general officer to be court-martialed in Air Force history. He pleaded not guilty in March.

The alleged assault took place in April of 2023 near Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma. Stewart says the encounter was consensual, while the female officer says she felt she needed to submit due to his rank and power in her command.

Stewart was relieved of his command of the 19th Air Force, an air force pilot training command, by his commander Lt. Gen. Brian Robinson in May. He faces around 60 years in prison if convicted.

The commander-directed court-martial requires the panel of jurors to be of equal rank and time in grade or of higher rank than Stewart, which narrows it down to two-star, three-star, and four- star commanders.

Josh Connolly, senior vice president of Protect Our Defenders, said his default decision is to let the justice system work, and the handling of this case goes against what they’ve worked for.

“I'm also not terribly comfortable with the convening authority being able to override this process,” Connolly said. “Especially someone who's not a legal expert. It just doesn't feel right.”

As of Wednesday, out of 13 generals, seven of the eight panelists needed were seated. The rest were dismissed, causing a delay in juror selection and opening statements. The presiding judge, Col. Matthew Stoffel, said the Air Education and Training Command, which Stewart serves, had to produce a new pool of generals to be sifted through.

The new pool of generals for the panel was required to appear in the Fort Sam Houston courtroom on Saturday morning.

And then by late Saturday evening, the final—the eighth— member of the jury was seated.

“The higher the ranking of the official—that's the accused—the harder it is and the weirder the panel pool is,” Connolly said. “It's not your typical court-martial.”

The trial is now expected to begin—with opening statements scheduled for Monday morning.

“One of the arguments people made is that many authorities and commanders can decide whether to move forward with the case, to make an example of someone and show people how serious they are about the crime,” Connolly said about the case. “This should be an evidence-based decision-making process, and not a commander's desire to look tough on a thing.”

One of the potential panelists was dismissed after the defense argued bias, due to the panelist congratulating the lead prosecutor, Col. Naomi Porterfield Dennis, for her position as lead deputy counselor under the OTSC in December.

According to the Air and Space Forces report, the margin on deciding what is impartial is vague. Those who have had family, close friends or staff who have experienced sexual assault, or had extra training on sexual assault cases are considered to have an implied bias and are dismissed.

Even though the eighth member of the jury has been seated, the defense could still opt for a judge's decision instead.

Patricia Olivares, director of government relations at Service Women’s Action Network, said she feels the generals that make up the jury will want to protect their own.

“He's a two-star. He's not going to get in trouble,” Olivares said. “They're going to take care of them. He's gonna retire, he's gonna get his full benefits.”

Olivares showed concern for the handling of this case, especially under the old law instead of OSTC. She worked closely with the Guillen family during their battle with passing the Vanessa Guillen Act, and said she wants service women everywhere to feel trust in the justice system.

“You're asking these women that have been through these traumatic experiences to believe in the system,” she said. “There should be a standard set that you can't get away with this.”

The previous court-martial of an Air Force two-star general charged for sexual assault was back in 2022. Former Maj. Gen. William T. Cooley avoided jail time, was stripped of his rank and retired as a colonel. He opted for a military judge and decided against a jury trial.

Previously, two general officers who were demoted and retired did not face a court-martial.

Stewart faces six charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, two counts of sexual assault under Article 120, two counts of dereliction of duty under Article 92, one count of conduct unbecoming of an officer under Article 133 and one count of extramarital sexual conduct under Article 134.

Copyright 2024 Texas Public Radio

Gabriella Alcorta-Solorio