CAAF decided the Air Force case of United States v. Barker, __ M.J. __, No. 17-0551/AF (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Monday, May 21, 2018. Reviewing a written statement from a child pornography victim that was admitted during the sentencing phase of a court-martial under Rule for Courts-Martial 1101A – the President’s implementation of the Article 6b right of an alleged victim to be reasonably heard – CAAF concludes that the statement was not admissible under that rule because the victim did not actually participate in the proceeding (and perhaps didn’t even know about the appellant’s prosecution). Nevertheless, the court concludes that the erroneous admission of the statement was harmless because the appellant pleaded guilty and was sentenced by a military judge alone, the defense sentencing case was weak, and the prosecution’s sentencing case was otherwise strong. Accordingly CAAF affirms the findings, sentence, and decision of the Air Force CCA.
Judge Ryan writes for the court joined by all but Chief Judge Stucky, who dissents (because he would find the issue waived by the pretrial agreement).
Airman First Class (E-3) Barker pleaded guilty, pursuant to a pretrial agreement, to possession and viewing child pornography. A general court-martial composed of a military judge alone sentenced Barker to confinement for 30 months, reduction to E-1, total forfeitures, and a bad-conduct discharge.
During the sentencing phase of the court-martial the prosecution offered an exhibit consisting of three victim-impact letters dated December 2011, January 2013, and September 2013. All of the letters pre-dated Barker’s offenses. The defense made numerous objections to admission of the letters, but the military judge admitted the exhibit in its entirety.
On appeal, the Air Force CCA considered the letters under two different rules: R.C.M. 1001(b)(4), which allows the prosecution to present evidence in aggravation, and R.C.M. 1001A, which implements a crime victim’s Article 6b(a)(4)(B) “right to be reasonably heard at . . . [a] sentencing hearing relating to the offense.” The CCA found (in a published decision analyzed here) that “[w]hile the Prosecution did not indicate whether they were offering the statements under R.C.M. 1001(b)(4) or R.C.M. 1001A(e), both the trial defense counsel and the military judge treated the Prosecution’s offer as a victim exercising her right to be reasonably heard under R.C.M. 1001A.” United States v. Barker, 76 M.J. 748, 754 (A.F. Ct. Crim. App. 2017). The CCA then found that the December and September statements “lacked any evidence that would have permitted the military judge to determine that they were authentic and, if authentic, relevant to Appellant’s court-martial.” 76 M.J. at 756. The January statement, however, “indicated that it was written by the victim of the ‘Vicky series’ child pornography, one video of which Appellant downloaded.” Id. at 756. Accordingly, the CCA found that the January statement was admissible under R.C.M. 1001A, but the December and September statements were not. Nevertheless, the CCA concluded that the improperly-admitted statements were harmless because “all three statements were from the same victim.” Id. at 757.
CAAF then granted review of two issues challenging the CCA’s conclusion that the January statement was admissible and the improper consideration of the other statements was harmless:
I. Whether the Court of Criminal Appeals erred when it held proper foundation had been laid to admit evidence in aggravation.
II. Whether the Court of Criminal Appeals improperly conducted a review of the prejudice resulting from the military judge’s erroneous admission of evidence in aggravation.
Writing for the majority, Judge Ryan concludes that the January statement was not admissible as a statement of a crime victim under R.C.M. 1001A (and does not address whether it might have been admissible as evidence in aggravation under R.C.M. 1001(b)(4) because that issue was not before the court). But the majority concludes that the erroneous admission of the statement was harmless.
Chief Judge Stucky dissents – even though he agrees with the majority’s conclusions that the statement was improperly admitted under R.C.M. 1001A but was harmless – because he finds that a term of the pretrial agreement served to waive this issue and precludes Barker from raising it on appeal. Accordingly, Chief Judge Stucky would would vacate the grant of review as being improvidently granted.
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