A former basic training instructor who sought an intimate relationship with a trainee was sentenced Thursday to 30 days in a military lockup and a reduction in rank to airman first class, a penalty that will permit him to remain in the Air Force.
The punishment for Tech Sgt. Christopher Smith granted his plea to jurors earlier in the day to stay in the service, and it fell far short of the four-month term and a bad-conduct discharge sought by prosecutors.
At the sentencing hearing, Air Force prosecutor Capt. Kaylynn Shoop urged the jury of seven commissioned officers to consider Smith’s sentence as a message to the world beyond the gates of Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, which has been rocked by accusations of sexual misconduct by 15 instructors.
“To not give him a bad-conduct discharge is really saying that this behavior doesn’t shock us,” she said.
Smith, 33, was convicted Wednesday of trying to start a romance with a 19-year-old trainee and having an unprofessional relationship with a second recruit. But jurors cleared him of charges of obstruction of justice and making sexual advances toward the teenager.
The sentence drew swift criticism from advocates.
“This is a travesty of justice,” said Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, a victim advocacy group. “This is another indication that Congress needs to do its job and hold an open congressional investigation with a series of hearings addressing the full scope of this crisis.”
At Thursday’s sentencing hearing, Smith read a short written statement that was punctuated by frequent stops as he choked back tears.
“I know I can tough out any punishment you give me, but a bad-conduct discharge mark I will never overcome,” he said.
He also asked jurors to consider his children.
Col. Polly Kenny, a senior Air Force attorney who’s a liaison between prosecutors and the media for the sex abuse cases, said the jury’s sentence doesn’t necessarily mean that Smith will be allowed continue his military career.
“The command has wide discretion in determining whether Sgt. Smith will be allowed to remain in the service,” she said.
It’s also possible that Smith, who worked as a basic training instructor for three of his 14 years in the Air Force, could be pushed out under administrative rules, she said.
While jurors deliberated for five hours, Air Force officials announced that another former training instructor has been slated for court-martial, bringing the number of trainers awaiting trial to four. Staff Sgt. Jason Manko faces charges of seeking to develop an intimate relationship with a trainee and having sexual relations with her.
The trainees under Smith’s command testified Wednesday that he hid them in the backseat of his car and drove them to a house off base where they were joined by a fellow instructor, Master Sgt. Jamey Crawford.
The trainee who caught Smith’s eye, identified as Airman 1, said he led her to an upstairs bedroom, put his arm around her shoulders and kissed her neck. when she seemed uncomfortable, Smith took her back downstairs.
Crawford, whose court-martial is scheduled for Sept. 5, is charged with having sex with the other recruit at the house.
Compared to the first two courts-martial linked to the sex scandal, the charges against Smith were less severe.
Luis a. Walker was sentenced to 20 years confinement for rape, aggravated sexual assault and misconduct with 10 trainees.
Peter Vega Maldonado, a former staff sergeant who pleaded guilty and became a witness against two other instructors, was ordered to serve a 3-month term with 30 days of hard labor. After admitting in the plea deal that he had sex with one recruit, he revealed to prosecutors that he actually had improper contact with 10 trainees.
During the sentencing phase for Smith, Air Force defense attorney Capt. Willie Babor said Smith was no rapist, and he would suffer lifetime consequences for a federal conviction on his record.
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