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Jury selection starts in U.S. general's sexual assault trial

By Marti Maguire

RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - Jury selection began on Tuesday for the trial of a U.S. Army general charged with sexually assaulting a subordinate, the latest in a string of sexual misconduct allegations in the U.S. military.

The charges against Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair led to his removal from command last year in Afghanistan.

Sinclair, a 27-year Army veteran based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, pleaded not guilty on Monday to charges of forcible sodomy, wrongful sexual conduct, possessing pornography while deployed and conduct unbecoming of an officer.

The most serious charges stem from accusations that he forced a subordinate with whom he acknowledges having a three-year affair to perform oral sex on two occasions. He is also accused of eliciting nude emails and text messages from other female subordinates. He could be sent to prison for life if convicted of the most serious charge, forcible sodomy.

His trial comes after President Barack Obama said in May that anyone found engaging in such transgressions should be "prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period."

Opening statements in the case are set for September 30 to give attorneys time to pick a jury from a tiny pool of potential panelists, who under military law must be of higher rank than the accused.

Fewer than 200 Army generals hold a higher rank than Sinclair, according to U.S. Department of Defense records.

Many of those officers would be ineligible for the jury because they are serving overseas or know Sinclair personally. A field of less than 50 prospective jurors has already been reduced to 26, defense attorney Richard Scheff said.

Eugene Fidell, a professor of military justice at Yale University, said it is rare for such a high-ranking officer to be prosecuted.

"The fact that you have a general officer accused of these crimes is remarkable," said Fidell, who noted that most misdeeds by high-ranking officers are handled through loss of rank or early retirement.

(Editing by Karen Brooks, Lisa Shumaker and Jan Paschal)

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