Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

A historic court-martial ends with the first conviction of an Air Force general

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. William T. Cooley speaks during a press conference inside the National Museum of the United States Air Force on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in 2019.
Wesley Farnsworth
/
AP
U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. William T. Cooley speaks during a press conference inside the National Museum of the United States Air Force on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in 2019.

A historic trial within the ranks of the U.S. military has ended with the first-ever conviction of an Air Force general in a court-martial.

Maj. Gen. William T. Cooley was found guilty on Saturday of abusive sexual contact for forcibly kissing his sister-in-law after a barbecue in 2018. He was acquitted on two other "specifications" of the sexual assault charge — specifically that he allegedly caused the victim to touch him over his clothes and that Cooley touched the victim's breasts and genitals through her clothes.

Cooley had pleaded not guilty. Sentencing is scheduled to begin Monday, and the two-star general faces dismissal from the military and up to seven years in prison, according to WYSO reporter Leila Goldstein.

Cooley was commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory, but he was relieved of command in early 2020 during the investigation into the allegations against him.

At trial at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, Cooley's sister-in-law said Cooley requested a ride after a 2018 barbecue where he drank alcohol. (Cooley's sister-in-law consented to having her relationship to Cooley disclosed by the media, but not to be named.)

She testified that, in the car, Cooley said he fantasized about having sex with her and pinned her against the driver's side door, kissing her and touching her breast and groin without her consent. She also said Cooley yanked her hand and touched it to his crotch.

The assault was like an "F5 tornado," Cooley's sister-in-law testified, "ruining everything in its path."

After the verdict, she said she hoped the next sexual assault survivor would have an easier time coming forward than she did, Goldstein reported.

"The price for peace in my extended family was my silence, and that price was too high," Cooley's sister-in-law said in a statement read by her attorney, Ryan Guilds. "Doing the right thing, speaking up, telling the truth, shouldn't be this hard."

She also referenced the story of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén, who was sexually harassed and then murdered by a fellow soldier in 2020.

"While this process has been incredibly invasive, not only for me, but also my immediate family and closest friends, I know there are countless other people who have been silenced forever, like Vanessa," Cooley's sister-in-law added, according to the Air Force Times.

She intends to read a victim impact statement at the sentencing hearing, Goldstein reported.

Rachel VanLandingham, a former judge advocate in the Air Force, told WYSO that Cooley's trial highlights the branch's willingness to hold its service members accountable – even those at the highest levels of leadership.

"This case strongly demonstrates that rank in the Air Force is no longer a shield for criminality and that there will no longer be impunity for general officer misconduct – and not just sexual assault but any type of misconduct," VanLandingham said.

Still, the number of U.S. military courts-martial for sexual assault pales in comparison to the thousands of service members who have experienced some form of sexual assault in the military, according to Pentagon data. Last year Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., called accountability for sexual assault in the military "vanishingly rare."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Hernandez