No Go: Why the Army Lost A High-Profile Sex Case
(TIME, March 23) -- Last Friday wasn't going to be a good day for the Army no matter which way the verdicts went in the sexual-misconduct case against former Sergeant Major of the Army Gene McKinney, once the service's highest-ranking enlisted man and one of its most prominent African Americans. But the Army, having gone ahead and prosecuted its case with zeal after some initial skittishness in the face of McKinney's adamant denials and his countercharges of racial scapegoating, could scarcely have done worse. The military jury came back with a verdict of not guilty on 18 of 19 counts and found McKinney guilty on only one charge, of obstructing justice (leaving him in the curious position of being convicted of trying to coach a witness about a crime he says he didn't commit). A white male Army officer groaned, "We've managed to tick off both women and minorities."
What was disconcerting to several officers of both sexes wasn't so much that the jury of eight--evenly divided between officers and enlisted men and including one black, one Hispanic and two women (both officers)--believed McKinney; it was that the jury didn't believe the six women who, unknown to one another, had come forward to tell similar stories about crude come-ons from the Army's senior soldier. As the verdicts were read in an Army courtroom at Fort Belvoir, just south of Washington, five of the six sat listening in disbelief, some in tears, others stone-faced. Sergeant Major Brenda Hoster, McKinney's former public affairs aide (now retired), who was the first to come forward and who testified that McKinney propositioned her in her hotel room during a 1996 Army trip to Hawaii, shook her head in disgust. McKinney stood rigidly at attention, betraying no emotion. Behind him, his wife Wilhelmina wept, mouthing the words "Yes, yes, yes" at the string of "not guiltys," then "Oh, no" at the lone conviction.
The plaintiffs sounded dazed in the verdicts' wake. "When they got to about the fifth 'not guilty,' I was saying,'This is unbelievable--I can't believe this--no way!'" Hoster told TIME. "There were 19 bullets, and you can't dodge them all, but he came pretty close," she added. "It's so unjust for the system to say these six women are nothing and his character is everything." But after the verdicts, McKinney's civilian lawyer, Charles Gittins, praised his client's relaxed demeanor on the stand and noted that his accusers had "credibility problems." Denying Hoster's charge, for instance, McKinney testified that he had visited her hotel room not for sex but to fire her. Prosecutors pointed out that he had been wearing his gym shorts, but as in a civilian trial, the Army's burden was to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. "Most of the complaints went back in time for months or years," a senior Army official observes. "None of the women came forward when they said they were assaulted, and that leads to reasonable doubt." Some commentators also felt that the jury may have been reluctant to convict McKinney on some charges, like adultery, that aren't always crimes in civilian life.
The obstruction-of-justice count was based on a phone call that McKinney made to a woman who later testified that he had hounded her for sex for more than two years. "All you have to do is tell them that we talked a lot. You call the office sometimes because you want to talk about career development and that kind of stuff," he told Staff Sergeant Christina Fetrow in a three-minute phone call she secretly tape-recorded. The jury will reconvene this week to decide McKinney's punishment, which could range from nothing to five years in prison and a dishonorable discharge.
--By Mark Thompson/Washington