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A court-martial ends with the first conviction of an Air Force general

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Major General William Cooley is now the first Air Force general convicted of a crime in a court martial. The two-star general was found guilty this weekend of one count of abuse of sexual contact. He was acquitted on two other counts. Leila Goldstein of member station WYSO has our report. And we should warn you that it includes descriptions of sexual assault.

LEILA GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: The military judge Colonel Christina Jimenez announced the verdict to the small courtroom Saturday morning at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton. The trial revolved around an encounter in 2018, when Major General Cooley was staying at his brother and sister-in-law's house in Albuquerque, N.M. His sister-in-law, the victim in the case, testified that Cooley pinned her against the inside of a car door, kissed her and touched her breast and groin over her clothes without her consent. She also said he yanked her hand and touched it to his crotch. She said the assault on her was like an F5 tornado - coming into her home without her consent, ruining everything in its path. Joshua Kastenberg is a retired Air Force judge advocate and teaches at the University of New Mexico School of Law. He says the case is unusual because the witnesses were family members.

JOSHUA KASTENBERG: It's a rare day that someone's mom testifies against them. And I've prosecuted over 250 cases in the military and in other U.S. courts, and I've been a judge of over 200 cases, and I never saw that in my entire time.

GOLDSTEIN: But beyond that, the case is historic because of the military rank of the person on trial.

KASTENBERG: I have to travel back to the 1950s to find a general that was on trial. And I've seen plenty of cases like this one, but they've usually been, you know, sergeants and captains who've been on trial, not major generals.

GOLDSTEIN: The verdict from the judge was split when it came to the three specifications he was charged with. He was found guilty of kissing the victim without her consent, while he was found not guilty of touching her breast and groin and forcing her to touch his genitals. Cooley faces dismissal from the military and up to seven years in prison. Rachel VanLandingham is retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who teaches at Southwestern Law School. She says the verdict sends a message down through the ranks of the military.

RACHEL VANLANDINGHAM: This case strongly demonstrates that rank in the Air Force is no longer a shield for criminality and that there will no longer be impunity for general officer misconduct - and not just sexual assault, but any type of misconduct.

GOLDSTEIN: The victim says she hopes the world is just a little bit safer as a result of this trial. Her attorney, Ryan Guilds, read a statement from her after the verdict.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RYAN GUILDS: The price for peace in my extended family was my silence, and that price was too high. Doing the right thing, speaking up, telling the truth shouldn't be this hard. Hopefully, it won't be this difficult for the next survivor.

GOLDSTEIN: The sentencing phase will begin on Monday. The victim plans to read a victim impact statement at the hearing. For NPR News, I'm Leila Goldstein in Dayton.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.