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Air Force commander defends decision to overturn jury's verdict in sex case against colonel

| Wednesday, April 10, 2013, 7:24 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The Air Force commander who overturned a jury's guilty verdict in a sexual assault case — enraging members of Congress and prompting talk of military justice reform — explained his case in a letter to a top Pentagon official, saying he found the accused officer and his wife more believable than the alleged victim.

In a detailed, six-page letter to Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin lays out why he decided to reverse the verdict — a widely criticized move that led to the Defense Department proposing that commanders be largely stripped of their ability to reverse criminal convictions of service members.

The woman accused Lt. Col. James Wilkerson of sexually assaulting her after a party at his house. Wilkerson and his wife denied the charges but said the woman stayed at their house that night.

A jury convicted Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy, Nov. 2 on charges of abusive sexual contact, aggravated sexual assault and three instances of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. Wilkerson was sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the service, but Franklin overturned the jury's verdict and dismissed the charges.

Franklin, commander of the 3rd Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, said a host of details led to his decision, including that the victim turned down offers to be driven home from the party, didn't accurately describe the house layout and gave a version of events that he did not find credible. He said Wilkerson was a doting father with a good career and it would be “incongruent” for him to leave his wife in bed, go downstairs and assault a sleeping woman he'd only met earlier that evening.

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