By Colleen Jenkins
WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (Reuters) - The lead prosecutor in a sexual assault case against a U.S. Army general set for trial next month has stepped down, a military spokesman said on Saturday, after defense lawyers say the prosecutor aired concerns about the credibility of a key witness.
Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair is due to stand trial in March in a rare court-martial of an officer of his lofty rank. The married general admits to a three-year affair with a female Army captain who worked in his unit in Afghanistan, but he refutes charges that he twice forced her to perform oral sex.
A spokesman at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where Sinclair is based, said Lieutenant Colonel William Helixon had "voluntarily left the prosecution team for personal reasons."
Sinclair has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him, including forcible sodomy and wrongful sexual conduct.
On Friday, The New York Times reported the prosecutor's abrupt departure this week came after Sinclair's attorneys said Helixon told them he believed the general likely would be acquitted of all charges that relied solely on the captain's testimony.
Helixon's concerns stemmed at least in part from evidence that the woman, who is the chief accuser in the government's case, lied under oath about when she discovered a cellphone that contained text messages and voicemails from Sinclair.
She testified at a hearing last month that she found the phone on December 9 and turned it on the next day, but a defense expert who analyzed government data taken from the phone said it was charged and accessed weeks earlier.
The New York Times said Helixon did not respond to messages seeking to confirm the defense team's account.
Fort Bragg spokesman Benjamin Abel did not comment on the defense's portrayal of Helixon's position, and said the trial was still set to begin on March 4.
"The government is committed to a fair resolution of the case in court," Abel said in an email.
Sinclair's defense said prosecutors previously had indicated a willingness to allow Sinclair to plead guilty to adultery, which is a crime in the military, and conduct unbecoming of an officer in exchange for dropping the sex assault charges.
But the prosecutors' superiors refused to accept those terms even though they acknowledged problems with the reliability of the main witness, according to the defense.
The case is being watched closely at a time when military leaders have come under fire for their handling of sexual assaults. Sinclair's attorneys argue their client is getting unfairly targeted, and they have asked for his accuser to be charged with perjury.
Sinclair, who served combat deployments in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Afghanistan, also is accused of eliciting nude photos from other female subordinates. In the case of the captain, prosecutors said he threatened to harm her career and family if she tried to end the relationship or exposed their affair.
The general was sent home from his post as a commanding general in Afghanistan in 2012 over the allegations. He could be sent to prison for life if convicted of the most serious charge, forcible sodomy.
"We've consistently tried to resolve this matter on behalf of our client, who is a war hero. Until now, our efforts have been met with silence," said Sinclair's lead attorney, Richard Scheff.
"If the Army is changing its view of this case, we welcome it," Scheff added. "If not, we remain disappointed that politics, rather than fairness and justice, is driving the decision making."
(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins, editing by G Crosse)