Lt. Col. James Wilkerson says he was 'dragged through the mud to satisfy a political agenda' in military sexual assault scandal

A US air force pilot whose conviction for aggravated sexual assault was overturned by a commanding officer, prompting widespread calls for reform to military laws, now claims he has been "dragged through the mud to satisfy a political agenda".

The case of Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkerson prompted a storm of controversy earlier this year, after it emerged that his conviction for assaulting a physician's assistant had been voided by a three-star general, against the recommendation of his legal counsel.

Wilkerson, 44 and described as an "air force superstar" by officials, was made to retire after his case became public. This week it was announced that his rank had been reduced to that of major.

In his first public remarks about the case, Wilkerson told the Air Force Times on Friday that Eric Fanning, the acting secretary of the Air Force who approved the terms of his retirement, had "apparently succumbed to external pressure from biased victim advocacy groups and congressional representatives on a political crusade in making this decision".

Wilkerson was based at the Aviano air force base in Italy, where he was serving as inspector general for the 31st Fighter Wing, when he was accused by a 49-year old physician's assistant of assaulting her as she slept in a guest bedroom at his home after a party. In November 2012, he was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to a year in jail, dismissal and pay forfeiture.

However three months later, in February, Lieutenant General Craig Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force based at Ramstein in Germany, used his discretion under the Uniform Code of Military Justice to conclude that the evidence against Wilkerson was insufficient to meet the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and set aside the original verdict.

"I have spent the last six months quietly trying to live my life in peace and rebuild my career after serving time in confinement for a crime I did not commit," Wilkerson said. "All the while, I have watched as my name, and those of my family, have been dragged through the mud to satisfy political agenda without concern as to accuracy or fairness."

Wilkerson's case intensified a national debate about sexual assault in the military and the power of commanders over prosecutions. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a Democrat, later introduced legislation to remove the responsibility for the prosecution of rape, sexual assault and other criminal cases from the chain of command. That proposal, which would see independent military prosecutors handle such cases, is opposed by the military's chiefs of staff, who say it would undermine "good order and discipline" in the ranks.

"Unfortunately, the timing and outcome of my case only helped fuel the debate about the statutory role of a convening authority in resolving claims of sexual assault in the military," Wilkerson said.

He added: "The debate for these issues belongs in a forum where constructive dialogue can occur – not in a newspaper, blog or microphone."

© Guardian News and Media 2013