Court-martial of Air Force general accused of sexual assault begins today

Credit: Randy Martin/12th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

Credit: Randy Martin/12th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

AUSTIN, Texas — A sexual encounter during an alcohol-fueled night between an Air Force general and a subordinate officer on a business trip has led to a court-martial for assault set to begin Monday at Joint Base San Antonio.

Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart is charged with two counts of sexual assault for the encounter with a woman under his command during a trip to Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma in April 2023.

Stewart’s attorneys have argued in court hearings that the encounter, which followed a night drinking alcohol with two other military personnel in Stewart’s hotel room, was consensual. Prosecutors contend the woman did not consent and could not have done so because Stewart was her boss and outranked her.

The two-star general is charged with one count for having penetrative sex with the woman and another for performing oral sex on her, according to his charge sheet.

Col. Naomi Dennis, a prosecutor in the case, said during a March hearing that the two had a “beck-and-call” nature to their relationship that made the line between professional and personal difficult to discern.

“She’s recounting the sexual assault to law enforcement agents ... ‘I don’t know how to tell this man no,’ " Dennis said.

Dennis also recounted in the court hearing that the victim said everything she does is to give Stewart what he needs. Their phone messages included her sending him a photo of where his car is parked and running errands on his behalf.

Keith Scherer, who was Stewart’s attorney at the March hearing, argued it was “guilt and shame” that led to the charge rather than nonconsensual sex. He said after the two had sex, the two stayed in bed together and she expressed concern about what she would tell her husband.

Stewart is also accused of dereliction of duty for flying a training aircraft at Altus during that same visit within 12 hours of drinking alcoholic beverages, conduct unbecoming an officer and adultery, according to his charge sheet.

At the time of the charges, Stewart commanded the 19th Air Force, the unit responsible for pilot training within Air Education and Training Command at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Air Force Base.

Lt. Gen. Brian Robinson, commander of the training command, fired Stewart in May 2023 and decided last year to move forward with the court-martial despite a report from a hearing in October recommending against it.

“Given that an experienced judge found no probable cause for the sexual assault charges at the Article 32 preliminary hearing, I am deeply troubled by Lt. Gen. Robinson’s decision to refer these charges to a court-martial,” said Sherilyn Bunn, Stewart’s attorney now.

Bunn, a former Army attorney, is the third lawyer to lead Stewart’s defense team.

Selection began today to find eight generals to serve on the jury, known in the military as a panel. All must be of equal or higher rank to Stewart, said Rachel VanLandingham, a former Air Force attorney.

“That is out of a recognition, a fear, that with a higher-ranking accused, the jury would be intimidated by the rank,” she said. “It can be deviated from if there aren’t enough individuals of equal to higher rank.”

The Air Force has 289 general officers, according to the service. Of those, 58 have a higher rank than Stewart. Another 78 are also two-star generals.

The Air Education and Training Command did not provide the number of officers who have been brought to San Antonio as potential jurors. During selection, the court will determine whether any have a potential for bias, such as a close relationship with the accused or the victim.

Once the trial begins, only six of the eight jurors need to agree to convict Stewart.

“[The military] is the last remaining criminal jurisdiction in the United States ... to allow for a non-unanimous verdict in a criminal case,” VanLandingham said.

Two years ago, the Air Force convicted Maj. Gen. William Cooley at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on a charge of abusive sexual contact, but the trial was by a judge alone and did not require a panel of jurors. Cooley was the first Air Force general to face court-martial. He was sentenced to a reprimand and forfeiture of about $55,000 for forcibly kissing a civilian woman at a 2018 barbecue.

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