Sgt. Maj. Gene C. McKinney, once the Army’s highest ranking enlisted member, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges of sexual misconduct against six women, opening a court-martial that might place a spotlight again on volatile issues of race and sex in the military.
McKinney, 47, the first African American to rise to sergeant major of the Army and a decorated Vietnam War veteran, has accused the military of targeting him for prosecution because he is black. The case against him, being heard in a military court at Fort Belvoir, Va., has provided a sensational view of the military’s difficulties in managing men and women in uniform.
“This case is being followed by every soldier in the Army,” said Lt. Col. Michael S. Child, the prosecutor, as jury selection began.
In pretrial proceedings, testimony from the six alleged victims has painted McKinney as a sexual predator, a married man who would demand sex and later plead with the women to cover up his conduct. McKinney faces 19 charges including obstruction of justice, assaulting an officer, indecent assault, maltreatment of a subordinate and adultery. If convicted he faces loss of rank and 55 years in prison.
The charges grew out of an investigation that began a year ago when Army Sgt. Maj. Brenda Hoster accused McKinney of propositioning her in Hawaii in 1996. Since then five other women have come forward offering accounts of how McKinney allegedly sought sex from them.
Facing the judge, Col. Ferdinand D. Clervi, to enter a plea, McKinney said firmly, “Sir, to all charges and specifications, not guilty.”
McKinney’s attorney has accused the military of singling out McKinney while ignoring allegations of similar misconduct by 23 high ranking officers. Clervi has declined to allow defense attorneys to pursue those theories. Wednesday, Clervi rejected a last defense motion that would have blocked the start of the trial.
Clervi predicted the trial, which was moved from Washington to Fort Belvoir because of its large courtroom, could run four to five weeks.
The case already has produced one of the longest pretrial hearings in Army history and a series of charges about some of the most sensitive issues in the military today: relations between officers and enlisted personnel, between men and women and between soldiers of different races.
Just how intense the case has become was apparent Wednesday in the courtroom sparring before Clervi and attorneys could agree on the composition of the jury that will try McKinney.
Prosecutors acknowledged they had moved one of the key witnesses across the country in an effort to protect her from harm. McKinney’s lawyers denied their client had made any effort to harm any witness but accused Army lawyers of coddling some of the witnesses. Defense lawyer Charles Gittins said the Army had given the witness an extraordinary assignment in California and had chartered cross-country flights for her on government aircraft.
Col. Frankie Hoski, the top Army lawyer at the Military District of Washington, denied any wrongdoing. He said he had supported transferring the witness to Monterrey, Calif., but said he did so because he feared she would be harmed had she remained in Washington or at a large military base where her identity might become known.