Major General Phillip A. Stewart is only the second general in the history of the Air Force to face a court martial. Stewart was stationed at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, where he was responsible for the Air Force’s training operations. But he was removed from that job in May, when he was accused of sexually assaulting a subordinate.
Stewart’s case is currently moving through the military’s judicial system, and he could spend decades in a penitentiary if convicted. Stewart’s lawyers have said that he plans to plead not guilty if the case goes to trial, but they hope that doesn’t happen.
That’s because Stewart has asked to retire from the Air Force entirely, instead of going to court.
Sig Christenson, military reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, spoke to Texas Standard about the case. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Why do his lawyers think that there may not be a trial here?
Sig Christenson: Well, they’re arguing that Stewart would like to retire. He would get his benefits and there would be a board that would evaluate what kind of loss of rank he would have, and how that would impact his pension.
They argue that the article 32 hearing examiner had recommended that no rape charges be filed in the case. And their argument is, is that the general who made the decision on proceeding to trial was wrong. They also basically argue that there was consensual sex in this case. And the evidence presented in the article 32 reflected that.
However, if you look at the way the Air Force has approached this, I think the argument is going to be that there is no way that the woman could have consented because of the power differential between the two of them.
Well, would that retirement affect whether or not he actually faces military prosecution?
Yeah, I guess their argument is, is that if he retires, we won’t go to trial.
But just so you know, he faces four charges, and I’ll just run them by everybody: Sexual assault, conduct unbecoming an officer, dereliction of duty and extramarital sexual conduct. He also was accused of flying an aircraft after consuming alcohol within 12 hours of his takeoff at Altus Air Force Base on April 14.
The Air Force secretary, Frank Kendall III, will be the person who decides whether to accept retirement or whether to let the prosecution continue.
But if he’s allowed to retire from the Air Force without facing a court martial, could he be charged with crimes related to this incident as a civilian?
No, he would not be. There would not be a second bite of the apple here because he’s within the military system. By the way, the military system is essentially the federal system. So if, say, he were to be convicted, he would have an appeal process that would go through to military courts, and then he would have a shot at the Supreme Court.
When do we expect an update here?
We will have a hearing on March 21. At that point, perhaps he will have a decision made by Secretary Kendall.
If that’s the case, we probably will have a plea from him. Just so everybody is clear on this, too: he made no plea. The other day he deferred it. So it’s going to be brought back up again on March 21. So this process is going to take a while.
A trial is scheduled for the summer. If it comes to pass, it is going to be historic. There’s only one other person that has been to trial like this at a general officer rank in the Air Force. And so it will be both historic and pathbreaking.
And the message that the Air Force is trying to send, I think is pretty clear: If you do this and you’re at a high rank, you’re going to be in big trouble. They’re trying their best to send a message to everybody that this simply is intolerable.