(Adds defense witnesses at sentencing hearing)
By Kelly Twedell
FORT BRAGG, N.C., March 18 (Reuters) - A U.S. Army general who admitted he mistreated a female captain during one of several improper relationships with junior officers earned loyalty from soldiers by empowering and inspiring them, supporters testified on Tuesday.
Defense witnesses said they still thought highly of Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair despite him being at the center of a court-martial that has focused attention on sexual misconduct in the U.S. military and could lead to jail time for the airborne infantry officer who served five combat tours.
"I believe pretty heavily in redemption," testified retired Lieutenant Colonel Jamie Gough, a defense witness who said he served with Sinclair in Germany and Iraq. "I understand he made a big mistake here, but he is an inspirational leader."
Sinclair, 51, a married father of two, avoided a possible life term in prison through a plea deal accepted on Monday that dismissed sexual assault charges he faced after a female Army captain under his command said he forced her to perform oral sex when she tried to end their adulterous sexual affair.
Charges that he had sex with her in a parking lot in Germany and on a hotel balcony in Arizona, and that he threatened to kill her if she exposed the illicit relationship, also were dropped during the court proceedings at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
The 27-year Army veteran has pleaded guilty to asking junior female officers for nude photos, possessing pornography on his laptop while deployed in Afghanistan, misusing his government credit card to pursue the affair and referring to female officers with demeaning names.
Sinclair was stripped of command in southern Afghanistan in May 2012 as a result of the allegations.
A female U.S. Army lieutenant called as a prosecution witness on Tuesday to provide evidence of Sinclair's admitted conduct unbecoming an officer said he once became angry after she declined his invitation for a horseback riding date.
She was not the main accuser in the case but one of the women with whom Sinclair said he "got too personal."
"Something didn't seem right," the lieutenant said of Sinclair's advances, adding through tears that the criminal case resulting from his actions took a toll on her reputation.
The identities of the female victims are being withheld by Reuters due to the nature of the charges.
'ROAD TO FORGIVENESS'
Absent from the courtroom was Rebecca Sinclair, who has not attended any of the trial but wrote a letter that the defense team plans to submit to the judge for consideration in the general's sentencing.
She said her decision to stay home with their two school-age sons should not be viewed as a lack of love or support for her husband of 29 years.
"I have to be honest - I am on the road to forgiveness, though not fully there," she wrote, noting that she alone had witnessed the depth of the general's remorse.
She asked for a fair sentence, "one that takes into account Jeff Sinclair as a whole person, recognizing his achievements and his sacrifices as well as his errors."
Sinclair's defense called 15 character witnesses and planned to present more on Wednesday as they make their case against him serving jail time for his military crimes.
The plea deal put a cap on the possible penalties, but those terms have not been disclosed.
Sinclair's defense lawyers argue the general should be allowed to retire at a reduced rank, saying his rare court-martial of a top officer was the result of political pressure on U.S. military leaders to show they were taking a tough stance against rising sexual violence in the armed forces.
In court, government attorneys have said they believed the captain's allegations of sex crimes. But the defense said on Tuesday that a prosecutor in the case told them he felt the government had overreached with the initial charges.
The general's main accuser gave emotional testimony about their volatile three-year affair that spanned two war zones and posts in the United States. The trial was halted last week before the defense had a chance to cross-examine her account, which they decried as untrue.
The military judge delayed the court-martial and allowed Sinclair to renew his plea offer after ruling that politics appeared to have improperly influenced the Army's decision to reject an earlier offer by the general to plead guilty if the charges of coercive sex acts were dropped.
Sinclair, who maintains he never forced sex, admitted as part of the plea agreement to causing the captain emotional harm. The captain's attorneys said in a statement that she accepted the plea bargain but stood by her allegations of sexual assault. (Additional reporting and writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Tom Brown and Andrew Hay)