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Maj. Gen. Cooley sentenced in historic Air Force trial

Maj. Gen. William Cooley was found guilty of abusive sexual contact on Saturday. He is the first Air Force general convicted of a crime in a court martial.
Wesley Farnsworth/88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
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Defense Visual Information Distribution Service
Maj. Gen. William Cooley was found guilty of abusive sexual contact on Saturday. He is the first Air Force general convicted of a crime in a court martial.

Maj. Gen. William Cooley received his sentence for the crime of abusive sexual contact Tuesday. Military judge Col. Christina Jimenez ordered that he forfeit $10,910 per month of his pay for five months and receive a written reprimand.

The sentence is the conclusion of a historic court martial that began last week, resulting in the first ever conviction of an Air Force general. Cooley was convicted of one specification of abusive sexual contact and acquitted of two others.

Lead trial counsel Lt. Col. Matthew J Neil said the court martial is significant as it signals to survivors of sexual assault that they can feel safe to come forward, despite the idea that high ranking leaders won’t be held accountable.

“I think this case demonstrates that the Air Force takes these offenses seriously,” he said. “Those [allegations] are investigated. And where appropriate offenders are held accountable without fear or favor regarding someone's rank or status.”

The verdict marks the first conviction of a general in a court martial in the 75-year history of the Air Force.

The trial centered on an incident after a family barbecue in August 2018 when Cooley was staying at his brother and sister-in-law’s house in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His sister-in-law testified in court that after a short car drive Cooley pinned her against the inside of a car door, kissed her and touched her breast and groin over her clothes without her consent. She also said he yanked her hand and touched it to his crotch.

The verdict from the judge was split on the three specifications he was charged with. He was found guilty of kissing the victim without her consent, but he was found not guilty of touching her breast and groin and forcing her to touch his genitals.

This case demonstrates that the Air Force takes these offenses seriously.
Lt. Col. Matthew Neil

Cooley’s reprimand will be written by General Arnold Bunch Jr., commander of the Air Force Materiel Command. The amount of pay the judge ordered him to forfeit represents two-thirds of his salary for five months.

Beyond the sentence, Cooley faces additional administrative consequences from the Air Force. His military rank could be reduced which would decrease his retirement benefits. He will also likely be required to register as a sex offender depending on state guidelines, according to Cooley’s defense counsel.

For the crime of abusive sexual contact, Cooley faced possible dismissal from the military and a maximum of seven years in prison. Defense counsel Daniel Conway said that Cooley was “very thankful for the judge's compassion” in her sentencing.

During the sentencing hearing on Monday, the sister-in-law gave a victim impact statement.

“His disgusting actions unmoored me. I went from being his sister-in-law, a member of his family for almost 30 years, to his victim,” she said, choking up briefly at one point as she read her prepared statement. “In my eyes, he became a predator, a title he will bear for the rest of his life.”

She said that the cost of remaining a member of her extended family was silence and secrecy to protect Cooley’s military position above all costs.

“I could have let Bill Cooley define me as a victim, but today, in coming forward, in shining a bright light on truth, I am working to rewrite that narrative,” she said. “And as a means of healing, I will work to channel the worst event of my life into something of service to benefit others.”

Cooley also read an unsworn statement, beginning by “apologizing sincerely and genuinely” to his sister-in-law as well as other family members.

He said that over the last nearly four years he has engaged in concrete actions designed to make himself a better human being, including “reading stacks of theological and self-help books.”

Cooley asked the judge not to dismiss him from the service, which would strip him of his retirement benefits, in part because of the effect it would have on his wife: “Whatever I deserve, she did not deserve this.”

“I will work the rest of my life to be a better person than the one portrayed in this trial,” he said in the courtroom Monday.

As a means of healing, I will work to channel the worst event of my life into something of service to benefit others.
Cooley's sister-in-law gave a victim impact statement

In her closing argument, trial counsel Maj. Megan Ortner stressed that the general should be dismissed from the military, and if not that the judge should consider jail time.

“He committed a crime, and he can't hide under his stars, his rank and his time in service,” she said. “A dismissal will show both the world and Maj. Gen. Cooley that no means no and that this is serious.”

During the defense’s closing argument, Conway said the idea of sentencing Cooley to confinement was “preposterous,” urging the judge to show compassion and to impose only a reprimand. He said the character letters provided to the court highlighted the general’s leadership and charitable spirit. He also mentioned that Cooley was a former Eagle Scout.

After the sentence was given, Conway told WYSO he believed that the Air Force and Bunch were under “a tremendous amount of pressure to refer charges in this case,” and that “this case, but for [Cooley’s] rank, may very well have not gone to a court martial.”

As for the notion that high ranking officers are less likely to be held accountable: Conway disagrees.

“This idea that there's a good old boys club I absolutely disagree with,” he said.

According to Conway, the general plans to appeal his conviction.
Copyright 2022 WYSO. To see more, visit WYSO.