A landmark trial in the ranks of the US military has ended with the first-ever conviction of an Air Force general by court martial.
Maj. Gen. William T. Cooley was found guilty on Saturday of abusive sexual interference 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 tricked the victim into touching him over his clothes and that Cooley allegedly touched the victim’s breasts and genitals through his clothes.
Cooley had pleaded not guilty. Sentencing is due to begin on Monday, and the two-star general faces being fired 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 was relieved of his duties in early 2020 during the investigation into the allegations against him.
During the trial at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, Cooley’s sister-in-law said Cooley asked for a ride after a barbecue in 2018 where he drank alcohol. (Cooley’s sister-in-law has consented to having her relationship with Cooley revealed by the media, but is not to be named.)
She testified that, in the car, Cooley said he was fantasizing about having sex with her and shoved her against the driver’s side door, kissing her and touching her chest and groin without his consent. She also said that Cooley pulled her hand and touched her crotch.
The assault was like an “F5 tornado”, Cooley’s sister-in-law testified, “destroying everything in its path”.
After the verdict, she said she hoped the next sexual assault survivor would have an easier time coming forward than her, Goldstein reported.
“The price of 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 that hard.”
She also referenced the history 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 for my immediate family and closest friends, I know there are countless others who have been silenced forever, such as Vanessa,” Cooley’s sister-in-law added, according to the Air Force Time.
She intends to read a victim impact statement during the sentencing hearing, Goldstein reported.
Rachel VanLandingham, a former Air Force judge advocate, told WYSO that Cooley’s lawsuit highlights the branch’s willingness to hold its service members accountable — even those at the highest levels of leadership.
“This case clearly demonstrates that rank in the Air Force is no longer a shield against crime and that there will be no impunity for general officer misconduct – not just assault. sexual but any type of misconduct,” VanLandingham said.
Yet the number of U.S. military courts-martial for sexual assault pales in comparison to the thousands of service members who have suffered some form of sexual assault in the military, according to Pentagon data. Last year, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, DN.Y., called accountability for sexual assault in the military “extremely rare.”