An Air Force sexual assault case that spanned two investigations, a lieutenant general's forced retirement and a finding of unlawful command influence ended after more than three years Wednesday with the acquittal of Airman 1st Class Brandon T. Wright.
A military jury made up of officers and enlisted personnel -- six men and one woman -- found Wright not guilty at Joint Base Andrews, Md., after three hours of deliberation.
The accuser's former Special Victims' Counsel said the verdict, although disappointing, was not a complete loss.
"I'm disappointed that the panel did not convict him; however, I am happy that the Air Force finally took the case seriously, as it should have from the start, and my former client received the day in court that she deserved," Maribel Jarzabek said. "I think the fact that the jury deliberated for three hours and asked to see some of the evidence showed that this wasn't the slam-dunk case that Gen. (Craig) Franklin and others predicted it would be."
Wright was accused of raping a staff sergeant in her apartment near Aviano Air Base, Italy, after a night of drinking and socializing in 2012.
Wright's defense, which focused its closing argument on the prosecution's burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and what the defense lawyers characterized as inconsistencies in the woman's statements over the past three-plus years, hailed the verdict.
Maj. Jacob Ramer and Cpt. Patrick Hughes said in a statement that "panel member(s) understood the importance of their role and gave their full attention to resolving the question before them."
They also said that Wright's unit had been "monumental in ... helping him through the most difficult time of his young life."
Wright did not testify.
After an Article 32 preliminary hearing in the case, then-Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, concurring with the hearing officer's and legal adviser's advice, dismissed the case in 2013.
In most circumstances, that would have been the end of it. But Jarzabek wrote a 12-page report accusing the hearing officer of bias against her client -- an assessment with which prosecutors agreed -- and complained that Franklin had declined to meet with her client as she had requested.
Meetings with alleged victims of sexual assault before a case dismissal were either required by policy, according to some Air Force officials or, according to others, highly encouraged.
Furthermore, Franklin had previously garnered the Air Force unwelcome congressional attention that led to a host of changes in military law. In February 2013, he had tossed out a jury's guilty verdict in the aggravated sexual assault case of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, sprung the fighter pilot from jail and reinstated him in the service.
Air Force officials decided that the Wright case should be re-investigated and transferred it to the Air Force District of Washington. After a second Article 32 hearing in January 2014, Maj. Gen. Sharon Dunbar sent the case to court-martial. The rape charge was dismissed, but Wright remained charged with aggravated sexual assault.
Air Force officials in the meantime told Franklin that they'd lost confidence in him, and he retired, losing a star in the process. His legal adviser, Col. J.P. "Dutch" Bialke, was "early retired" by an administrative board.
Wright's lawyers had consistently argued that the extraordinary transfer of the case and the career endings of Franklin and Bialke represented unlawful command influence and that charges against their client should be dropped.
Lt. Col. Joshua Kastenberg, the case trial judge, found in July that there had been unlawful command influence or its appearance in the case, in part for political motives. But Kastenberg ruled against dismissing the case because the second investigation and subsequent referral of charges to court-martial had been impartial and free of command influence.
The jury was unaware of the case history, other than that there had been two Article 32s.
The sergeant testified that while she and Wright were watching a movie, he pulled her on top of him and proceeded to rape her. She testified that she couldn't escape because she was frozen with fear.
But a friend of Wright's -- in another room at the sergeant's apartment reading "Fifty Shades of Grey," according to accounts of his testimony -- said he'd heard what sounded to him like consensual sex. He said the sergeant told him that Wright had raped her, but Wright told him he would never rape anyone.
Ryan Guilds, a civilian lawyer and the woman's independent counsel, said that in his view, prosecutors had proved the case beyond a reasonable doubt and that any inconsistencies in her statements over the years were inconsequential and the result of "normal problems of memory."
Guilds said that questions asked by the jury members during trial -- a unique aspect of U.S. military law -- showed a regressive military "mind-set" about sexual assault.
One officer on the panel asked the judge if the jury could see the sergeant's performance evaluations and ribbons. Another wanted to know whether the sergeant had ever cheated on her fiancé, Guilds said. "They have absolutely no bearing in the case; they're totally irrelevant," he said. The judge did not allow either request.