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Former undersecretary of Army testifies at trial

by Steven Mross | August 14, 2021 at 4:05 a.m.

Former Undersecretary of the Army James E. McPherson was in Hot Springs Wednesday, testifying at the federal trial of a former sailor accused of failing to register as a sex offender who claimed McPherson had set aside his 2000 conviction on a rape charge in Bahrain.

McPherson, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral and former General Counsel of the Army, was serving as the 39th Judge Advocate General of the Navy in 2006 when a letter purportedly issued by him was allegedly received by Donald Bramlett, a U.S. Navy sailor convicted on Feb. 14, 2000, of rape and unlawful entry while stationed in Bahrain and sentenced in June 2001 to nine years in the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan.

Bramlett was found guilty Thursday by an eight-woman, four-man U.S. District Court jury in Hot Springs of one felony count of violation of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act for failing to register from Dec. 1, 2019, to Aug. 24, 2020, while the jury found him not guilty of an additional felony count of knowingly making and using a false document which he had reportedly presented to a U.S. marshal in June 2020 who was investigating his sex offender status.

Bryan Achorn, assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, who prosecuted the case, told The Sentinel-Record the jury deliberated for one hour and 15 minutes before returning their verdicts and Bramlett now faces up to 10 years in prison on the failing to register charge followed by a mandatory five years of supervised release. Sentencing, which is held separately in federal court, will be in four to five months.

"It's not often a person appointed by the president to three different positions comes to town to testify," Achorn said of McPherson's participation in the trial Wednesday, where he adamantly denied ever issuing or signing the letter Bramlett had presented.

McPherson testified that not only did he have no knowledge of the letter, but the letterhead, coding, his signature block and even the address and ZIP code of his office were incorrect on the letter. He noted actual letters issued by him did not include his room number and the room number listed on the letter was the wrong room and floor.

"It was completely incorrect," he said, noting that some of the military coding on the letter dealt with "security clearances" and "manpower analysis" rather than anything to do with a court martial and conviction.

"It makes no sense whatsoever," he said, "and has nothing at all to do with a court martial." McPherson also noted, "That's not my signature," and "My office did not have the authority to set aside (Bramlett's) court martial anyway."

In his opening remarks, Achorn noted Bramlett was released from prison on Jan. 30, 2006, and dishonorably discharged from the Navy. Prior to his release, on Jan. 25, Bramlett signed three copies of a form explaining how he would be required to register as a sex offender from then on and to inform local law enforcement whenever he moved to a new address. "He was told failure to do so was grounds to revoke his parole," he said.

Bramlett's conviction was automatically appealed, but the appeal was denied in November 2005. A second appeal filed by Bramlett was also denied in October 2006, after his release.

Benjamin Hooten, Bramlett's attorney at Wednesday's trial, told the jury in his opening remarks that while Bramlett may have signed the three copies of the sex offender form, he never received the forms. "He's not trying to pull anything here," he said. Hooten also claimed Bramlett was unaware his second appeal was denied.

"He was never notified his appeal was decided, in his favor or not, and there's no proof the government ever sent him anything. He never knew it was final and he felt he had no obligation to register (as a sex offender) until the appeal was final," Hooten said.

McPherson testified Bramlett had three attorneys working on his appeal, two provided by the military and one Bramlett or his family had hired, and "they would have kept him in the loop."

He said his attorneys would likely have called him directly to let him know his appeal was turned down and would have sent him documentation of the decision, noting such notification was standard military protocol.

Hooten also noted that Bramlett "had no reason to believe (the McPherson letter) was false. Whether it is or not, he didn't know that." In cross-examining McPherson, Hooten asked, "How would a layman know if it was real or fraudulent?"

McPherson said, "Any member of the military would have known. There were several red flags that would have been raised. Anyone who served in the military would have immediate questions and concerns."

Deputy U.S. Marshal Mel Carver, who was assigned Bramlett's case as a sex offender, testified Wednesday he tracked Bramlett to Hot Springs via his driver's license information where he listed a Higdon Ferry address that turned out to be the address of the UPS Store.

He said he later discovered Bramlett was living at a residence on Laser Street where he had moved in 2019 and was finally able to make contact with him there on June 22, 2020, and inform him he was in violation of the sex offender registration act.

Carver said Bramlett "pulled a folded piece of paper" out of his wallet which turned out to be the purported letter from McPherson which Bramlett told him "one of his attorneys" gave him.

"He didn't say which attorney it was," he said. The letter indicated Bramlett's conviction had been "set aside."

Carver said he discovered Bramlett had not registered as a sex offender "in any of the states where he has lived" including Arkansas. He noted Bramlett had previously lived in Kansas and Missouri and Vancouver before moving to Hot Springs.

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