WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- When the lead prosecutor wrapped up his case against an Air Force general at a recent court-martial, he made sure to drive home a point: No one, not even a general, is so important they are above the law.
"He is not someone who can do what he wants and simply get away with it because he's that important and that good," prosecutor Lt. Col. Matthew Neil said in his closing arguments.
Until recently, it was a point that could have rung hollow.
No general in the 75-year history of the Air Force had ever been through a court-martial, let alone been convicted. But in April, both happened.
What's more, the allegations centered on a sexual assault, a crime the military is facing increasing pressure to stop as Congress has stepped in to force the services to change.
The case that made Air Force history was the court-martial of Maj. Gen. William Cooley, the former head of the Air Force Research Laboratory. Cooley was accused by his sister-in-law of pinning her against a car window, kissing her, putting his hand on her breast and then moving his hand to between her legs after a brief drive following a family barbecue in August 2018. She also alleged that, during the ride, he tried to pull her hand to his crotch.
The judge in the case, Col. Christina Jimenez, found Cooley guilty of forcible kissing but not guilty of the groping allegations. She sentenced him to forfeiting more than $50,000 of pay and to a letter of reprimand -- far short of the maximum sentence of seven years' confinement and losing all pay and benefits.
Neil told reporters after the sentencing that the trial demonstrated that "offenders are held accountable without fear or favor regarding someone's rank or status."
"I can't speak to anything that happened in the prior 75 years," Neil said when pressed on why it took so long for a general to be court-martialed. "But I think you all saw our prosecution of this general officer in this court-martial, and I don't think anyone would accuse us of being afraid of his rank or his status in prosecuting this case."
Advocates are hopeful the court-martial is the beginning of a sea change in the military justice system -- a sign the "old boys' club" that has protected top officers across the military from accountability is starting to break down.
"What was so momentous about this case is that the shield of impunity that general officers in the Air Force had carried since the Air Force became its own separate service following World War II has finally been stripped away," said Rachel VanLandingham, a former Air Force judge advocate who now teaches at Southwestern Law School. "Rank may have its privileges, but one of those privileges shouldn't be lack of accountability."
Prior to last month, the closest the Air Force had gotten to court-martialing a general was a 1992 war trophies case. Then-Maj. Gen. Donald Kaufman was accused of illegally bringing back two AK-47 rifles, a rocket-propelled grenade and a hand grenade from the Gulf War and soliciting a subordinate to get rid of the haul, according to reporting from the time.
Kaufman was arraigned as part of court-martial proceedings, but the case was dismissed. Instead of the trial, Kaufman was demoted from major general to colonel through nonjudicial punishment and allowed to retire.
Other generals didn't even get that close to a court-martial, despite investigations uncovering wrongdoing. In 2004, Maj. Gen. Thomas Fiscus, who was the Air Force's top lawyer, was reprimanded, had to forfeit pay and was reduced in rank through nonjudicial punishment after the service's inspector general found he made inappopriate sexual advances toward 13 women over a decade.
In 2006, Brig. Gen. Richard Hassan, who led the Air Force senior leader management office, was given the same nonjudicial punishment after the inspector general found he sexually harassed female subordinates and created a hostile work environment.
The problem is not exclusive to the Air Force. A recent investigation by nonprofit military news outlet The War Horse documented how Marine Corps officers who had engaged in proven wrongdoing were allowed to retire with benefits, a steppingstone to lucrative post-military careers.
Critics have charged that top brass have been shielded from accountability through what's sometimes called the "old boys' club," "old boy network" or "good ol' boys club" -- in other words, generals making decisions about other generals they may be friendly with.
"There was a form of justice for those O-6 and below and a system of justice for those wearing stars," said Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders who formerly served as Air Force chief prosecutor. "It all boils down to, there are very few general officers or admirals in the military, and you are asking another general officer to make the decision about a fellow general officer whether or not they should be prosecuted."
Christensen pointed to the sexual assault investigation into retired Gen. John Hyten, a process that Christensen and other critics argue was flawed. Hyten, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was accused in 2019 of sexual assault by a subordinate when he led U.S. Strategic Command, but an Air Force investigation did not substantiate the allegations. The general who was assigned to decide what to do with the case was a four-star who was still junior to Hyten, and he determined that, based on the investigation, there was not enough evidence to charge Hyten or recommend administrative action. Hyten's accuser is now suing him in civilian court.
Congress is chipping away at generals' involvement in prosecutions, particularly when it comes to sexual assault.
After years of faltering Pentagon efforts to combat military sexual assault, a frustrated Congress took a step that some lawmakers had been proposing for nearly a decade but had been unable to push over the finish line until last year.
With the passage of last year's defense policy bill, commanders will no longer be the ones deciding whether allegations of sexual assault and some related crimes are prosecuted. Instead, newly created special trial counsel will make those calls when the reforms take effect at the end of 2023.
The change did not go as far as some reformers wanted; they sought to force the military to remove decisions on all felony-level crimes from the chain of command. Lawmakers also recently said there was a "massive oversight" that left sexual harassment within the chain of command and are pushing for that to change this year.
But the bill passed last year was still one of the most significant overhauls of the military justice system in recent history, coming after years of Pentagon officials resisting any major reform.
The Pentagon backed the bill, and lawmakers who previously opposed it came on board, amid persistently high accounts of sexual assault in the military.
In the Defense Department's most recent annual report on sexual assault released in May 2021, the department said it received 7,816 reports of sexual assault in 2020, down nine cases from 2019, which was a 3% increase from 2018.
It's that scrutiny and pressure over sexual assault cases in particular that may have put an Air Force general in the defendant's chair for the first time.
"I am 100% convinced that five years ago, [Maj. Gen. William] Cooley would have just been told to retire," Christensen said.
The general's civilian lawyer, Daniel Conway, told reporters after the trial concluded that the case was "nearly resolved administratively," but that the convening authority, Air Force Materiel Command chief Gen. Arnold Bunch, was under "a tremendous amount of pressure" to bring charges.
"This case, but for his rank, may very well have not gone to a court-martial," Conway said. "There's lots of different ways that people can be held accountable in our system of justice. And so this idea that there's a good old boys club, I absolutely disagree with."
While the sister-in-law’s personal lawyer, Ryan Guilds, pushed back on the notion that political pressure influenced the charging decision, he also told reporters that he didn't "think that this case 10 years ago would have necessarily been tried."
After the conviction, Air Force officials touted how the court-martial showed they are "committed to holding all airmen accountable, regardless of rank, when their actions don't meet Air Force standards," as Bunch said in a written statement.
Cooley's status as a general was not a major storyline during the trial, but it loomed over the proceedings.
Prosecutors alluded to Cooley's high rank as they described him as someone with a "selfish ego" who could not handle rejection and who envisioned "a scenario in which he does what he wants and gets away with it because he's that important or that good."
As they argued for his sentence to be dismissal from the military -- the commissioned officers' equivalent of a dishonorable discharge -- prosecutors also stressed that his behavior was "inconsistent with those two stars he wears on his shoulder," adding that "he doesn't get a free pass because he has 32 years of service."
The sister-in-law also told the judge during the sentencing hearing that she initially felt she had to keep quiet "all to protect him and his military position above all costs."
Cooley's defense team, meanwhile, downplayed his high rank as they argued the sister-in-law tried to manipulate him in adopting her version of events.
"It doesn't matter whether you have two stripes or two stars, any human being can be gaslit," military defense lawyer Maj. Shea Hoxie said during closing arguments.
Despite one conviction, the outcome also indicates that there's more work to do, advocates said.
"From day one of basic training, rank means something," said VanLandingham, the Southwestern Law School professor. "When you're sentencing or looking to convict or not, to decide whether or not a general officer who outranks you by numerous ranks, and you've been trained, indoctrinated your entire career to look at that general officer with great deference -- you can't remove that. It's not just removed by putting on those black robes, because you only end up wearing those black robes for a couple of years."
It will be years before it's clear whether the Cooley case is remembered as a true turning point in the military justice system or a footnote in history about the Air Force making an example of one general.
But the victim's attorney was unambiguously triumphant in his summary of the case.
"He's guilty," Guilds told reporters when asked about the split verdict. "A survivor stood up, and the general paid."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.