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U.S. general who overturned sex assault conviction to leave military

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Air Force general who sparked outrage last year when he overturned a fighter pilot's sexual assault conviction said on Wednesday he had decided to leave the military.

Lieutenant General Craig Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force, caused an uproar among some U.S. lawmakers last spring when he voided the sexual assault conviction of Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkerson at Aviano Air Base in Italy, throwing out his one-year prison sentence and returning him to duty.

Franklin caused further anger last fall when he declined to prosecute an enlisted man accused of rape, throwing out the case against Airman First Class Brandon Wright, who was accused of raping a female sergeant at Aviano.

"In the last 10 months as the commander of Third Air Force and 17th Expeditionary Air Force, my judgment has been questioned publicly regarding my decisions as a general court martial convening authority," Franklin said in a statement from the Air Force's Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

"The last thing I want in this command is for people to feel they cannot bring a sexual assault case forward or feel it won't be dealt with fairly. In addition, public scrutiny will likely occur on every subsequent case I deal with," he added.

Franklin's decision to overturn Wilkerson's conviction was one of several incidents that fueled anger last spring over a Pentagon report estimating some 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact in the military in 2012, a 37 percent increase from 2011.

Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a former sex crimes prosecutor who has led efforts to reform the way the military handles assaults and had called for the Air Force to remove Franklin, welcomed his resignation.

"Lieutenant General Franklin's decision to resign is the right one," McCaskill said in a statement. "His handling of sexual assault cases is the best possible illustration of why civilian review, elimination of commanders' ability to overturn convictions, and so many other protections are included in our recent defense bill," she added.

Franklin, who served in the Air Force for more than 30 years, said he would step down on January 31.

(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Sandra Maler and Steve Orlofsky)

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