Jury selection began Tuesday as the military trial of a two-star Air Force general accused of sexually assaulting a female officer got underway at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys started questioning 13 general officers to determine who can fairly consider the case of Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart, the Air Force’s former pilot training boss who faces prosecution for allegedly touching an unnamed woman’s genitalia without her consent during a work trip to Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma in April 2023, as well as for allegedly pursuing an extramarital affair and taking control of an airplane after consuming alcohol.

Stewart was charged in September 2023 with two counts of sexual assault, two counts of dereliction of duty, one count of conduct unbecoming of an officer, and one count of extramarital sexual conduct. If convicted, he faces a possible sentence of up to 63 years in prison.

The trial marks the first time an Air Force general officer will face a jury as part of a court-martial, and the second time in about two years that an Air Force general will fight a sexual assault charge in military court.

Stewart pleaded not guilty in a military courtroom in March and said that the interaction was entirely consensual. Prosecutors argued that the imbalanced power dynamic gave the female officer no choice but to accept his advances, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

Before his plea, Stewart attempted to retire instead of facing court-martial, but his request to do so was denied. He’ll now be tried by a jury of his peers rather than by a military judge alone.

The panel must be comprised of Air Force officers who rank higher than Stewart, or other major generals who pinned on a second star ahead of him. The pool of officers who fit the bill is small: there were only 68 two-, three- and four-star generals to choose from, according to the Express-News.

Lt. Gen. Brian Robinson, the commander of Air Education and Training Command and Stewart’s superior, chose the 13 potential jurors who arrived in Texas for further scrutiny. Ultimately, lawyers will settle on a panel of eight jurors who will hear the case over the coming days.

Military law dictates that convening authorities like Robinson, who hold certain legal powers in the court-martial process, choose prospective jurors whose age, education, training, experience, length of service, and temperament best qualify them for the job.

Three of the potential jurors are women, and two are Black, according to the Express-News. The rest are white men.

They include Air Force Deputy Surgeon General Maj. Gen. John DeGoes and Lt. Gen. Caroline Miller, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, the Express-News reported.

General voir dire, when the judge and counsel grill potential jurors on their ability to be unbiased during court proceedings, has ended. Now the prosecution and defense can ask follow-up questions until the eight-person jury is complete.

Two jurors were dismissed Tuesday after questioning because the defense objected to what it perceived as implied bias, according to Col. Jennifer Clay, Air Education and Training Command’s deputy staff judge advocate.

While it’s unclear how long jury selection will last, opening arguments are expected to start in the San Antonio courtroom next Monday.

Don Christensen, a retired colonel and former chief prosecutor of the Air Force, noted that availability was likely the leading factor in who was tapped for further consideration to sit on the jury.

“Every time you take an officer out of the job, that’s going to have a ripple effect through the Air Force,” he said.

Familiarity with the parties involved can also play a role in potential jurors’ dismissal, Christensen said: “There’s not a lot of generals, and they pretty much know each other.”

Having preexisting knowledge or an opinion of the case could also lead to dismissal, but because most generals likely already know about a trial of this magnitude, that may not be as big of a red flag, he added.

He also pointed out that many of the potential jurors may have experience as convening authorities themselves, which could add another wrinkle to the panel’s selection if candidates have an intimate understanding of how the process works.

Just two other Air Force generals have started the court-martial process. One, Maj. Gen. Donald Kaufman, was arraigned as part of a court-martial in 1992, but his case was dismissed and never went to a jury, Air Force Times previously reported. Kaufman, who faced allegations of taking enemy AK-47 assault rifles as trophies from the Gulf War, was demoted to the rank of colonel and retired.

The second, Maj. Gen. Bill Cooley, the former commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory, retired as a colonel last June after being convicted of abusive sexual conduct for forcibly kissing his brother’s wife. He has lodged a complaint with the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals.

Riley Ceder is an editorial fellow at Military Times, where he covers breaking news, criminal justice and human interest stories. He previously worked as an investigative practicum student at The Washington Post, where he contributed to the ongoing Abused by the Badge investigation.

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