Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin was warned about the negative impact of his decision to overturn a high-profile sex assault conviction of an Aviano Air Base, Italy, inspector general, newly released documents show. (Air Force)
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One week before Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin overturned a high-profile sex assault conviction of an Aviano Air Base, Italy, inspector general, he received what would turn out to be a prophetic warning about the impact of such a decision.
It would “have a huge negative impact on morale, send a very negative message about how seriously we take sexual assault in the Air Force and potentially call into question the effectiveness of our Uniform Code of Military Justice in general,” Brig. Gen. Scott Zobrist, then commander of the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano, wrote Feb. 19.
The email was one of dozens of exchanges about the case of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson between top Air Force leaders now posted to the Air Force Freedom of Information Act website.
A military jury convicted Wilkerson on Nov. 2 of sexually assaulting a sleeping houseguest, sentenced him to a year in prison and dismissal — the officer equivalent of a dishonorable discharge. Three months later, on Feb. 26, Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force and the convening authority in the case, set aside the verdict, releasing Wilkerson from a South Carolina brig and restoring him to service.
The move was rare; the Air Force could find only five such incidents in the last five years in which commanders granted clemency in sex assault cases.
The hundreds of pages of emails document Franklin’s interest in the Wilkerson case, his belief in the former IG’s innocence and the three-star’s behind-the-scenes coordination to get him back to work.
The emails also show that Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh and head of U.S. European Command Gen. Philip Breedlove weighed in.
“I cannot think of ANY Air Force officer who would have given this more personal effort than [Franklin],” Breedlove wrote to Welsh on Feb. 26. “I stand behind his decision.”
Wrote Welsh in a March 12 email: “I think it was the right thing to do.”
Maj. Megan Schafer, an Air Force spokeswoman, said Welsh was referring to Franklin’s decision to write about his judgment and not about Franklin’s decision.
The emails also indicate leaders were aware, to some degree, of the possible repercussions of the decision.
Franklin “and I have discussed in depth the meaning and possible blow back,” Breedlove wrote Feb. 26.
Zobrist was more forward. “I hope I’m not out of line here sir,” he wrote to Franklin, “but Aviano has a lot at stake on this and I’m concerned ... reversing the [verdict] will have major second and third order consequences, here at Aviano and around the USAF.”
Franklin’s decision ignited almost immediate outrage and criticism on Capitol Hill and among victim advocates and has led to multiple bills in Congress that would remove a commander’s clemency authority — a move supported by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
When Franklin learned a jury had convicted Wilkerson, who is also an F-16 pilot, he inquired right away as to his future. He wanted to know whether Wilkerson would lose his retirement and where he would serve out his sentence.
“There are no winners here,” the three-star wrote in an email soon after the verdict. “I feel terrible for the Wilkerson family, the victim and our Air Force.”
The documents also show Franklin believed Wilkerson was innocent. “I am sleeping very well knowing I made the right call and that an innocent man is free,” he wrote in a March email.
Franklin worked behind the scenes to get Wilkerson back to work and promoted to colonel, according to the emails.
Wilkerson now serves as chief of flight safety at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., but there has been no announcement of promotion.
He had been selected to pin on the rank of colonel before the sex assualt allegation but was later removed from the promotions list. Reinstatement requires action from the Air Force Board for Corrections of Military Records, Franklin learned in an email.
The three-star called the process “ disappointing” and “insulting” to Wilkerson and his family “after all they have been through.” He asked whether he could make a request for correction to colonel on Wilkerson’s behalf.
“I will call the [Air Force Personnel Center] directly,” he said in a Feb. 28 email.
“A letter from you would certainly carry a lot of weight not only due to your rank, but that you also reviewed the entire case,” came the March 1 response. The name of the sender was redacted from the emails.
Franklin reached out to fellow Lt. Gen. Darrell Jones, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, about Wilkerson’s security clearances, which had been revoked.
The 31st Fighter Wing was working to restore the clearances, Franklin wrote in a March 6 email to Jones. The clearances were terminated “for reasons that are unfounded,” he said.
It is not clear whether Franklin’s efforts were successful.
Franklin also offered to advise Wilkerson personally. “I would assure him he has a great future and his record is very competitive for” operations group commander, Franklin said in the email.
By March 5, according to the emails, Wilkerson had decided to take the lieutenant general up on the offer to talk about his future in the Air Force. Three days later, Franklin canceled their planned call because of “schedule changes and all the media interest that my decision has generated. Any direct contact I have with him ... could be misinterpreted,” according to Franklin’s email.
By that time, Franklin had gotten an assurance that the issues with Wilkerson’s security clearance would receive “senior visibility” and “moves along quickly,” he wrote in the same email.