Opinion Analysis: There is no tipping point of corroboration in United States v. Adams, No. 14-0495/AR
CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Adams, __ M.J. __, 14-0495/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Monday, April 27, 2015. The court reverses Appellant’s conviction for larceny after concluding that Appellant’s confession, which was “the government’s key piece of evidence,” was improperly admitted because “virtually none of the facts we have previously articulated as essential were corroborated.” Slip op. at 11 (quoting the CCA’s opinion). CAAF reverses the decision of the Army CCA and the findings and sentence, and authorizes a rehearing.
Judge Erdmann writes for the court, joined by Judges Stucky and Ohlson. Chief Judge Baker dissents, joined by Judge Ryan.
CAAF granted review of a single issue in this case:
Whether the Army Court of Criminal Appeals erred in finding that the military judge did not abuse his discretion in admitting the portion of Appellant’s sworn statement regarding the [theft] of cocaine because the Government failed to corroborate, in accordance with Military Rule of Evidence 304(g), the essential fact that appellant took cocaine.
Appellant was convicted contrary to his pleas of not guilty, by a general court-martial composed of a military judge alone, of one specification of larceny in violation of Article 121 (as a lesser included offense of the charged offense of robbery in violation of Article 122). He was sentenced to confinement for 165 days, reduction to E-1, and a bad-conduct discharge.
Appellant’s conviction was based on an alleged armed robbery of cocaine from a local drug dealer. Acting on a tip from another soldier identified as an accomplice in the theft (but who did not testify at trial because he was in an unauthorized absence status), Army investigators interrogated Appellant, and Appellant gave a written statement in which he admitted to stealing cocaine from the drug dealer, using a S&W handgun, near a local WalMart.
The statement given by Appellant was admitted at trial over a Defense objection on corroboration grounds. The corroboration rule – M.R.E. 304(g) (2012) (relocated to M.R.E. 304(c) (2013)) – permits use of an admission or confession of the accused against the accused “only if independent evidence, either direct or circumstantial, has been introduced that corroborates the essential facts admitted to justify sufficiently an inference of their truth.” Additionally,
If the independent evidence raises an inference of the truth of some but not all of the essential facts admitted, then the confession or admission may be considered as evidence against the accused only with respect to those essential facts stated in the confession or admission that are corroborated by the independent evidence.
M.R.E. 304(g) (2012) (relocated to M.R.E. (c)(2) (2013)). In this case the Government did not present corroborating testimony from Appellant’s accomplice or from the victim. Rather, the Government presented the testimony of Army investigators. That testimony directly corroborated the existence of a suspected drug dealer matching Appellant’s description of his alleged victim (who was known to the investigators), the existence of the handgun (as seized from Appellant’s home), and the existence of a local WalMart fitting Appellant’s description of the location of the alleged larceny. However, the testimony did not directly corroborate the existence of any cocaine, the object of the alleged larceny.
Nevertheless, the military judge ruled that much of Appellant’s confession was admissible based on the following corroboration:
The description of the handgun the accused admitted to “waiving [sic] around quick” is a “S&W .40 cal.” This matches the description of [the weapon found in the search]. . . . [T]he Court finds that these items found in the accused’s home four days after the alleged crimes coupled with the testimony regarding the location of a Walmart and Microtel in Evans Mills, New York to be sufficient to meet the standard of the slight corroboration required by the rule and case law.
Slip op. at 6. On review, the Army CCA found that the military judge did not abuse his discretion in making that ruling, and the CCA affirmed the findings and sentence. CAAF then granted review in Adams and in another case also presenting a corroboration issue: United States v. Bennett, No. 14-0658/AR (grant discussed here).
Today’s ruling doesn’t just reverse the Army CCA; it also breathes new life into the corroboration rule.