Air Force general to face jury for allegedly raping a subordinate

Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart, commander of 19th Air Force, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, is briefed by U.S. Air Force Maj. Stephanie Chayrez, flight commander, human performance, 33rd Fighter Wing, at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, Nov. 30, 2022. Stewart toured the 33rd FW to learn about the wing’s mission and commemorate exceptional Airmen. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Christian Corley)

Sig Christenson
San Antonio Express-News
(TNS)

The trial of Air Force Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart, accused of raping a female subordinate last year, will get under way in earnest Monday morning with opening statements to a jury of three-star generals.

The eighth and final member of the jury was seated at 8:55 p.m. Saturday after a week of arduous questioning of prospective jurors in a courtroom at Fort Sam Houston. During that process, known as voir dire, prosecution and defense lawyers probed for signs that a potential juror might not be impartial, and if the judge agreed, the person was removed from the panel.

Each side also could strike a juror from the panel without citing a reason. That’s known as a peremptory challenge, and the prosecution and defense each had one.

On Saturday night, the jury stood at nine, one more than the minimum. Then Stewart’s lead defense attorney, Sherry Bunn, used her preemptory challenge to strike Maj. Gen. John J. DeGoes, deputy surgeon general of the Air Force. DeGoes has a San Antonio connection: During the pandemic, he commanded the 59th Medical Wing at Lackland AFB. Bunn’s team had no comment on why it removed him.

Stewart is only the second general in Air Force history to face a court-martial. He’s accused of sexually assaulting the female officer at or near Altus AFB in southwestern Oklahoma in April 2023. At the time, he was commander of the San Antonio-based 19th Air Force, the service’s pilot training arm. He was stripped of the job a month later “due to a loss of confidence in his ability to lead.”

Stewart contends that he and the female officer were in a consensual relationship. The prosecution asserts that the woman had no choice but to submit to his advances given his rank and power over her.

Read More: Air Force hearing examiner says female subordinate never said “no” while having sex with accused general

Stewart could be sentenced to as many as 63 years in prison if found guilty of four violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice: sexual assault, conduct unbecoming an officer, dereliction of duty and extramarital sexual conduct.

To convict, six of the eight jurors will have to agree on Stewart’s guilt. In a civilian criminal trial, a conviction requires a unanimous jury vote.

Even with DeGoes’ removal, the jury for Stewart’s court-martial has two generals with San Antonio ties.

Lt. Gen. Caroline Miller, deputy Air Force chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, previously led the 502nd Air Base Wing, which provides supply and logistical support for the installations that make up Joint Base San Antonio: Randolph and Lackland Air Force bases, Fort Sam Houston and Camp Bullis, an Army training range.

Lt. Gen. Kevin B. Kennedy is commander of the 16th Air Force at Lackland, also known as Air Forces Cyber. The command oversees information and electronic warfare, surveillance, signals intelligence and other operations worldwide.

Under military law, jurors in Stewart’s trial had to be three-star and four-star generals, or two-star officers with greater seniority at that rank than Stewart has. Before jury selection was finished Saturday night, a total of 18 jury candidates had made their way to Fort Sam for group and individual questioning. Four others were struck before they traveled to San Antonio, on the basis of questionnaires they completed.

As voir dire wore on last week, the military court ran out of potential jurors, forcing the Air Force to summon six more generals to Fort Sam in time for Saturday’s court session. One of those generals was excused from jury duty before boarding a flight. Another, Lt. Gen. Michael Schmidt, was in Poland on Wednesday and flew from there to his base in Arlington, Va., before continuing on to San Antonio.

Schmidt is in charge of the F-35A Lightning II program to develop a next-generation stealth fighter capable of flying at speeds up to 1,200 mph. It’s a massive procurement effort, one of the largest in the Air Force.

Under questioning by Bunn on Saturday, Schmidt said that “there’s a lot of things going on” with the program. He went on to say “that’s why we have other people” on the project who can handle tasks while he serves as a juror.

Bunn asked whether travel fatigue and preoccupation with the F-35A would affect his ability to “dial in” during the trial.

“No,” Schmidt replied. “I’m definitely a little sleep-deprived, but I don’t think so.”

Before the jury was set, the defense raised concerns about the generals’ relationship with Maj. Gen. Jennifer M. Short, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall III’s liaison to Congress. Many of the jurors said they had dealt with Short when she prepared them to testify on Capitol Hill.

Short is relevant to Stewart’s case because prosecutors contend that he lied to her in a phone conversation after he was charged, and she is expected to testify. Bunn contended that the juror-generals’ interactions with Short could sway their view of her testimony.

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