Air Force General Pleads Guilty To Two Charges. What Does It Mean and What’s Next?

An Air Force general’s decision to plead guilty to two relatively minor charges may be part of a strategy to build his credibility when defending against more serious charges, according to a military legal expert.

Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart is the second general in Air Force history to face court-martial and the first to face trial by a panel, the military equivalent of a jury. On June 24, Stewart pleaded guilty to one count of dereliction of duty under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice for pursuing an unprofessional relationship. He also pleaded guilty to one count of violating UCMJ Article 134, for having an extramarital affair, a spokesperson for Air Education and Training Command confirmed to Air & Space Forces Magazine.

Stewart has pleaded not guilty to three other charges: two counts of violating Article 120, which forbids sexual assault; one count of Article 133, conduct unbecoming an officer for allegedly inviting a subordinate to spend the night with him; and a second count of Article 92, for allegedly controlling an aircraft within 12 hours after consuming alcohol.

The only other Air Force general to have been court-martialed, Maj. Gen. William Cooley, was convicted of abusive sexual contact in 2022 by military judge alone. Stewart was relieved as the head of the 19th Air Force, which oversees all Air Force pilot training, by Lt. Gen. Brian Robinson, the head of Air Education and Training Command (AETC), on May 9, 2023.

Stewart pleaded guilty to the two charges at the start of the second week of the trial, which began June 17 at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Panel selection took up much of the first week before concluding June 22.

Stewart’s rank made panel selection especially difficult—military panel members must either be ranked higher than the defendant or pinned on the same rank earlier than him or her. The initial pool of panel members for Stewart’s trial included an unprecedented two four-star generals, 12 three-stars, and two two-stars, including commanders and deputy commanders of Air Force major commands, members of the Air Staff, and more.

The partial guilty plea, made at the start of the trial’s next phase, may have been part of a strategy to boost the general’s defense against the other charges, a former chief prosecutor of the Air Force reasoned.

“You’d argue to the court ‘hey, he’s admitted what he’s done, so he’ll have an opportunity to be punished for what he did, but you shouldn’t punish him for something he didn’t do,’” retired Col. Don Christensen told Air & Space Forces Magazine. 

The government cannot use Stewart’s guilty pleas as evidence for the other charges, he explained. Just because Stewart pleaded guilty to extramarital conduct with a subordinate officer does not mean that the conduct was non-consensual, a claim which the trial counsel seeks to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. 

The difference in potential punishment is significant. The maximum punishment for willful dereliction of duty not resulting in death or grievous bodily harm is a bad-conduct discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 6 months, according to the 2024 Manual for Courts-Martial. The maximum punishment for extramarital conduct is dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 1 year.

The maximum punishment for sexual assault, where Stewart is charged with two specifications, is forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 30 years, with a mandatory minimum of dismissal or dishonorable discharge.

Why the defense team timed its plea after jury selection is unclear, but now the lawyers may argue a “mistake of fact” defense: in this case, Stewart had sex with a subordinate officer under a reasonable impression that she was consenting to it. 

Defense lawyers’ questions during jury selection seemed to indicate that approach, with lawyers asking potential panel members whether several minutes of open-mouth kissing or heavy petting demonstrated consent to any sex act. A few generals answered ‘no,’ or said it would depend on the context. 

At the trial on June 24, the alleged victim testified that the sexual encounter, which occurred at or near Altus Air Force Base, Okla. in April, 2023, occurred after heavy drinking, according to the San Antonio Express-News. While she “never told him no,” she feared the consequences for her career.

“It sounds so simple, but it’s not simple,” she said, according to the Express-News. “I was not prepared to have my entire universe blown up.”

A spokesperson for Stewart’s defense team declined to comment until the proceedings are complete. In the meantime, the general can choose whether he wants the sentencing decisions to be made by the panel or by the judge alone, Christensen said.

“It allows the defense to be more aggressive, because the judge knows not to hold litigation against them, whereas the jury might be like ‘you put us all through this, so we’re going to slam you,’” he said.

A change made to the UCMJ in late December limits sentencing to judges alone, but Stewart’s alleged offenses took place before that change, so the old rules still apply. His choice would apply to all charges, not just the ones he pleaded guilty too. The partial plea may help him achieve a lighter sentence for those charges.

“If he were to be sentenced by members, the judge would instruct them that the guilty plea is recognized as the first step towards rehabilitation,” Christensen explained. “So you do get some credit for pleading guilty.” 

Stewart’s charges include six specifications:

  • Two specifications of violating Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, failing to obey a lawful order or regulation, first for allegedly failing “to refrain from pursuing an unprofessional relationship” and second for allegedly controlling an aircraft within 12 hours after consuming alcohol. The first specification allegedly dates to March 6 and May 9, while the second allegedly dates to on or about April 14 at or near Altus Air Force Base, Okla.
  • Two specifications of violating Article 120 of the UCMJ, which covers rape and sexual assault, for alleged nonconsensual sexual contact, dated on or about April 13 and 14 at Altus.
  • One specification of violating Article 133 of the UCMJ, conduct unbecoming an officer, at or near Denver, Colo., on or about March 6 and March 8, where it alleges that Stewart, “while on official travel, wrongfully invite [redacted] to spend the night alone with him in his private hotel room[.]”
  • And one specification of violating UCMJ Article 134, which refers to “all disorders and neglects to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces, of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces,” for allegedly engaging “in extramarital conduct” on or about April 13 and 14 at or near Altus.