By Kelly Twedell
FORT BRAGG, N.C., March 5 (Reuters) - Prosecutors of a U.S. Army general on criminal charges, including sexual assault, will not be allowed in their opening statement to show pornographic images they say he possessed, a military judge ruled on Wednesday.
In the rare court-martial of an active-duty general, prosecutors wanted jurors to see some of the 8,500 pornographic images and 600 videos they say were found on four devices used by Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair while he was deployed overseas. Possession of pornography on deployment is a crime.
The trial judge, Colonel James Pohl, ruled the government had to wait to present the pornographic images as part of witness testimony rather than show them during opening statements set to begin on Thursday.
Sinclair's attorneys said the pornography could unfairly prejudice jurors at the outset of the case.
Sinclair, 51, is standing trial at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on criminal charges that include forcible sodomy, wrongful sexual conduct and maltreatment of subordinates, as well as the pornography-related charge.
The government accuses the married father of two of twice forcing oral sex during a three-year affair he admitted to having with a junior female officer whom he requested be assigned to his unit in Afghanistan.
Sinclair could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted.
The allegations led to the decorated general's removal from command in southern Afghanistan in 2012. He has pleaded not guilty and denies ever engaging in non-consensual sex or using his rank to coerce subordinates.
Pohl ruled that military lawyers also could not use the pornographic images to prove intent or motive by Sinclair on the separate sexual assault charges. A prosecutor said there were "stark similarities" between the images and sex crimes of which Sinclair is accused.
"The attempt to use one to prove the other is an intent to distract the jurors," defense attorney Ellen Brotman said after the court session.
Earlier on Wednesday, the judge questioned the five two-star generals chosen as jurors in the case to ensure they remained fit to serve after being selected last summer.
The officers, who all rank higher than Sinclair, a one-star general, traveled from several states and Korea to take part in the court-martial.
The trial proceedings coincide with a debate in Congress over proposed changes to how the military handles sex crimes.
Pohl on Tuesday denied a defense motion to dismiss the charges against Sinclair after a daylong hearing focused on whether top military leaders improperly influenced the case due to political pressure to crack down on sex crimes in the U.S. armed forces.
Sinclair's lawyers said the lead prosecutor who resigned just weeks before the trial wanted to abandon the sexual assault charges because of concerns about the key accuser's credibility. But military officers said the prosecutor, while grappling with severe emotional distress from personal issues as well as the case, did not doubt the underlying allegations. (Reporting by Kelly Twedell; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Dan Grebler)