Our number three military justice story of the year features, appropriately enough, a trio of cases.
In 2008, NMCCA reversed one of two premeditated murder convictions and the death sentence in the case of United States v. LCpl Wade Walker, 66 M.J. 721 (N-M. Ct. Crim. App. 2008). That case was retried this year, ending in a sentence of confinement for life.
In 2006, CAAF affirmed the portion of NMCCA’s opinion in United States v. Quintanilla setting aside the death sentence in that case. United States v. Sgt Jessie Quintanilla, 63 M.J. 29 (C.A.A.F. 2006). The convening authority agreed to a non-capital disposition of the case this year.
And in 1998, CAAF set aside the death sentence in United States v. SGT James T. Murphy, 50 M.J. 4 (C.A.A.F. 1998). The convening authority agreed to a non-capital disposition of the case this year.
Eight of the 13 approved death sentences imposed under the current military death penalty system have been reversed on appeal. (Three remain pending at the first level of appeal; the CA hasn’t yet acted in Hennis.) And now in all eight of those cases, the original death sentence has been replaced by a sentence including confinement for life.
[Familiar disclosure — a bunch of the contributors to this blog, including me, took part in the Walker and Quintanilla appeals.]
One of the main lessons I draw from these cases is that great lawyering matters. I followed the Walker retrial closely, though unfortunately I was actually in the courtroom for only half a day. I have no doubt that but for the incredible job that LCpl Walker’s defense team did, he would have been resentenced to death. There were three particular points in the trial — voir dire and challenges being one of them, one involving the admissibility of a particularly damaging piece of sentencing evidence, and the third involving an instruction issue — when the ultimate outcome likely would have been different but for the performance of LCpl Walker’s counsel. The team that represented him consisted of LtCol (soon to be Col) John Baker, who was the Marine Corps’ East Coast Regional Defense Counsel at the time and who is now the Chief Defense Counsel of the Marine Corps; our CAAFlog colleague CDR Jason “Super” Grover, who had previous capital experience in the appellate arena; and Capt Kelly Repair.
Continuing with the great lawyering matters theme, almost certainly the most experienced capital litigator in the Department of Defense is Navy CAPT Henry Lazarro. He has been on both sides of capital cases at the trial level, has capital appellate experience, and ran the Navy’s capital litigation resource center. He is THE military capital guru. And he’s been involved with the Quintanilla case for about a decade now. He worked every possible angle for his client. When doors were repeatedly shut in his face, he found other doors. And finally this year, he and his team of LCDR Stephen Reyes and Capt Suzanne Dempsey accomplished their mission by obtaining the convening authority’s agreement to send the case to a non-capital sentence rehearing. Great lawyering prevailed for the client.
Army LTC Jim Varley was the great lawyer who represented SGT Murphy on the remand of his capital case. This year’s agreement with the convening authority to proceed with a non-capital sentence hearing was the culmination of LTC Varley’s eight years of work on the case.
Another lesson these cases teach is the importance of continuity of counsel. CAPT Lazarro worked the Quintanilla case for about 10 years; LTC Varley worked the Murphy case for eight years, and CDR Grover worked the Walker case for more than six years.
Regardless of how one feels about the death penalty or the results of any of those particular cases, I’m sure we all appreciate that the military mission and professional duty of the defense counsel assigned to those three cases was to obtain the results they did. They performed that military mission brilliantly and successfully. For providing such outstanding examples of the craft of lawyer, the three life sentences adjudged this year in three remanded capital cases is our number 3 military justice story of the year.