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Accused One-Star Fights Court of Public Opinion

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, once seen as a rising star and combat-proven commander, is fighting two battles.

The first, for his freedom, is taking place in a Fort Bragg courtroom.

The second, for his reputation, is playing out on the Internet.

Sinclair, the former deputy commanding general for support of the 82nd Airborne Division, is charged with having an illicit affair and engaging in wrongful sexual conduct.

Sinclair is facing 25 specifications of eight charges, including forcible sodomy, wrongful sexual conduct, indecent acts, attempting to violate a lawful order, maltreatment, conduct unbecoming an officer, adultery and communicating threats.

Sinclair has admitted to an affair but maintained that the relationship with an Army captain who served as one of his aides was consensual and that he did not force her to perform a sex act.

If convicted of the most serious charges, Sinclair's career would be all but over and he could face significant prison time.

If acquitted, he will still likely carry the taint of the charges that were levied against him, officials said.

To combat that, representatives for Sinclair have launched an Internet campaign to tell his side of the story, which includes an admitted affair.

"If you have read the news coverage surrounding Brigadier General Jeff Sinclair, you likely believe the worst," reads the front page of sinclairinnocence.com. "The Army has carefully managed a public relations campaign to try and convict General Sinclair in the public sphere, before he even has his day in court. But in America, individuals are presumed innocent until proven guilty."

"Sinclair admitted from the start to his affair with (his accuser), and to inappropriate texts/emails with four other women," another part of the website reads. "He has been forthright in acknowledging his mistakes and believes that he ought to be sanctioned proportionately for them."

The website, launched Jan. 22, includes transcripts of evidence Sinclair's lawyers could present at trial, including journal entries of his accuser, text messages between him and the woman, polygraph results and a partial transcript of the weeklong hearing held last fall.

The website's content prompted prosecutors to file a motion asking the military judge, Col. James Pohl, to issue a protective order curtailing Sinclair's access to documents and evidence.

"They object to the use of such documentation for his defense website and are attempting to curtail further use of evidence to press his case in the court of public opinion," a Sinclair spokesman said.

Pohl did not approve the motion, but he did put into place a less restrictive protective order that requires potential jurors to avoid the website and media coverage of the case.

David Ardia, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, said Sinclair's tactics are nothing new.

He said Sinclair's website was the 21st century version of shouting a speech from the courthouse steps.

"Criminal defendants are always eager to win in the court of public opinion," Ardia said. "But now the Internet has made that megaphone much more powerful."

With his website and a Twitter account, @SinclairFriends, representatives for Sinclair can "cut out the middle man," in this case, the media.

"It's certainly made it much easier and much more effective," Ardia said.

With his website, Sinclair is following in the footsteps of other high-profile defendants like Amanda Knox and George Zimmerman.

Knox is the American woman who was convicted, but later cleared, of a 2007 murder in Italy. Zimmerman is the Florida man accused of killing an unarmed Trayvon Martin last year. That case has yet to go to trial.

Locally, some high-profile cases also have featured websites.

Jeffrey MacDonald, the former Army doctor convicted in 1979 for the murders of his pregnant wife and two daughters in February 1970, has themacdonaldcase.org, which is maintained by the MacDonald Defense Committee.

Michelle Theer and John Diamond, who were convicted of the 2000 killing of Theer's husband, Air Force Capt. Marty Theer, also operated websites. But those sites do not appear to be active.

And like those defendants, Sinclair also is taking a risk.

Ardia said Zimmerman saw those risks when his bond was revoked, in part, due to the fundraising efforts that took place in the open on his website.

Another potential risk is that, if Sinclair chooses not to testify at the trial, prosecutors could try to admit evidence from sinclairinnocence.com, Ardia said.

While Sinclair isn't the first to take his case to the Internet, he might have one of the better efforts, Ardia said.

"This is a savvy PR effort," he said. "It clearly demonstrates someone who understands the power of social media. The site doesn't immediately strike you as one-sided. It looks neutral and unbiased. To a casual reader, it appears to try and present an unbiased case."

But will it work?

Ardia said that depends.

"There's two audiences, public and jury, and it's much easier to reach the public," he said. "This probably can be effective, at least in regard to the court of public opinion."

"Typically, in the past, the prosecution had the microphone," Ardia said. "Now the defense can better shape the conversation. They can provide information that would otherwise not be made public. It's a much more effective platform."

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