As his accusers sat stone-faced in a military courtroom Friday night, Sgt. Maj. Gene McKinney, once the top enlisted soldier in the Army, was exonerated of all sexual misconduct charges at his closely watched court-martial and convicted of just one count of obstructing justice.
The sergeant major, the first black person to lead the Army’s 410,000 enlisted soldiers, was found innocent of the other 18 charges against him. As the verdict was read, he stood ramrod straight at the defense table, next to his civilian lawyer, Charles Gittins.
In a brief statement afterward, Gittins credited the verdict to McKinney’s bearing on the stand, from which he spoke with ease and good humor and no sign of rehearsal.
The six female accusers, on the other hand, had “credibility problems,” Gittins said, referring to Sgt. Maj. Brenda Hoster, Staff Sgt. Christine Fetrow, Maj. Michelle Gunzelman, Sgt. 1st Class Rita Jeczala, Sgt. Christina Roy and Navy Petty Officer Johnna Vinson.
The explosive accusations against McKinney had surfaced at a time when sexual harassment and assault cases against women in the Army had embarrassed the military and raised new concerns about the integration of women into the Armed Forces.
Faced with a growing number of accusers who threatened to destroy his sterling career, McKinney fought back strenuously, arguing that white officers had not been treated so severely in misconduct cases and noting that all his accusers were white.
Neither McKinney, 47, nor the women - five of them in attendance for the verdict - were willing to speak Friday night, preferring to wait until the jurors have heard more testimony in the penalty phase of the court-martial. The guilty charge relates to a telephone call from McKinney to Staff Sgt. Christine Fetrow on Feb. 18, 1997, when he tried to coach her in her dealings with military investigators. Unknown to him, she was cooperating with the prosecution and recording the call.
That tape was played to the jury. On it the sergeant major told the young woman that “all you have to do is tell them we talked a lot, career development and that kind of stuff, that’s all they need to know.”
Despite an acquittal on the underlying sexual misconduct charges - including indecent assault and solicitation of adultery - the jurors apparently concluded that McKinney was tampering with the legal system in an inappropriate way by telling Sgt. Fetrow what to say.
Army officials released a statement saying: “It would be inappropriate for the Army leadership or the Army as an institution to comment on the findings until the sentencing phase is completed. We have said all along we were committed to letting the military justice system run its full course, and that is exactly what we’re doing.”
The verdict came after five weeks of testimony, 119 witnesses and a three-day deliberation that left the parties on both sides chewing their fingernails, especially earlier Friday when one juror was so unhappy with the deliberations that he considered withdrawing. “We had no idea what juror or what he was upset about,” Gittins said. “But it sure churned up a lot of stomach acid.”
The verdict pointed to the high hurdle of proof for sexual misconduct charges, which are basically a matter of he-said/she-said, with little evidence beyond the accounts of the witnesses.
“This was a test of the difficulty of proving things beyond a reasonable doubt, when large parts of the controversy are a swearing contest,” said Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice. “First, last and always, the burden of proof was on the United States to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt. And that is not an easy burden.”
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