DAYTON, Ohio — The first Air Force general officer to stand trial in military court has opted to persuade a judge of his innocence rather than face a jury of fellow high-ranking officers.
On Monday, the first day of his court-martial here at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, Maj. Gen. Bill Cooley pleaded not guilty to a three-part charge of kissing and groping a woman against her will in August 2018.
Cooley commanded the Air Force Research Laboratory at the time; his accuser is a civilian. Air Force Times does not publish the names of alleged sexual assault victims without their permission in order to protect their privacy.
His case marks not only the Air Force’s first time beginning court-martial proceedings against a general, but also the first time sexual assault charges have led to criminal prosecution for someone so high up in the chain of command.
The decision to avoid a jury trial signals the defense’s hope for a speedy court-martial and a reflection of the difficulty the court may have had in choosing an unbiased panel.
“It’s difficult to pick a jury from a pool of officers whose career progression depends on the approval of a Senate that expends significant energy excoriating them about sexual assault on an annual basis,” military criminal defense attorney Daniel Conway told reporters.
Jury selection alone could have taken longer than the trial itself, which is expected to continue less than a week, added Conway, who is Cooley’s civilian counsel. The defense team also believes a single arbiter could more appropriately handle a complicated case with “tangled interpersonal relationships,” he said.
Cooley entered active duty service in 1990 and has worked in a variety of military space, missile defense, research and other positions. At one point, his lawyer said, the two-star was a frontrunner to lead the Space Force when it was created in December 2019.
Cooley was off duty in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the time of the incident, which he says was consensual. Parties involved in the dispute later asked Cooley for a written apology and to pay for the cost of counseling after the alleged assault, but those attempts at closure fell short.
He was removed from his post in January 2020 amid an Office of Special Investigations inquiry and charged with violating Article 120 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, which forbids sexual assault. The OSI report will not be used as evidence in the court case, Conway said.
Cooley now serves as an assistant to Air Force Materiel Command boss Gen. Arnold Bunch, promoting the service’s science and technology plans.
Prosecutors on Monday provided as evidence several email threads spanning more than a year after the alleged incident, plus bank records and a curriculum vitae. The case is slated to begin in earnest Tuesday with opening statements and more details on the submitted documents.
Lawyers for Cooley’s accuser declined to comment on the case Monday.
Had the defense chosen to move forward with a jury trial, the court would have sought a panel of eight commissioned officers from the Air Force’s highest echelon.
To be considered as a juror, candidates would have had to become a major general before July 2018 or currently hold the rank of lieutenant general or general.
Sixty-eight of those top airmen were initially eligible for jury selection, and 29 were sent to Bunch for consideration, Air Force spokesperson Derek Kaufman said. Sixteen were tapped as potential jurors; the court would have halved that pool for trial.
To be found guilty, at least three-fourths of the jurors would have had to vote that way in a secret ballot.
Instead, those decisions will be left up to military judge Col. Christina Jimenez.
Jimenez is a “no-nonsense” judge, said Steve Lepper, a retired major general who served as the Air Force’s deputy judge advocate general from 2010 to 2014.
She will decide whether the two-star will be jailed or allowed to retire with benefits. Cooley could face up to 21 years behind bars — seven years for each specification of the charge against him: sexual contact without consent. There is no minimum sentence. Cooley could also lose his pay alongside dismissal from the Air Force, Kaufman said, and a guilty verdict could land him in the national sex offender database as well.
He may also win the case and avoid punishment altogether.
A few decades ago, most judge-only trials ended in convictions. But that’s no longer the case, especially in the Air Force, according to Don Christensen, a former Air Force chief prosecutor.
“Air Force judges seem to be very open to acquitting an accused now and do so at a rate on par with court members,” said Christensen, who serves as president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for military sexual assault victims, which has worked on the case. “For sex assault and rape cases, whether before members or a judge alone, the accused is found not guilty in the Air Force about 80% of the time.”
The court-martial comes as the Pentagon prepares to overhaul how it handles sexual misconduct allegations by shrinking the role of an accuser’s chain of command in that process.
Some observers, including Christensen, argue that Cooley’s case would not have gone to trial if not for the #MeToo movement that took off on social media in 2017, aiming to hold accountable those involved in sexual misconduct and those who cover it up. But Conway disagrees.
“I don’t think that’s true at all,” he said. “I think that convening authorities have historically been very conscientious about which cases they choose to send forward to trial and which ones that they don’t.”
One other case serves as partial precedent for this week’s proceedings. In the early 1990s, then-Maj. Gen. Donald Kaufman was arraigned as part of a court-martial in a war trophies case, but the criminal lawsuit was dismissed and never went to a jury, Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek said. He was demoted to the rank of colonel and retired.
“We’re really testing the limits of the Air Force to be able to try a general officer here, and to try one fairly,” Conway said. “It’s a significant case.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.