Opinion Analysis: Finding unlawful influence by external pressures including a Deputy Judge Advocate General’s improper advice to the convening authority, CAAF dismisses the sexual assault conviction with prejudice in United States v. Barry
CAAF decided the Navy case of United States v. Barry, 78 M.J. __, No. 17-0162/NA (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Wednesday, September 5, 2018. A divided court agrees that the appellant’s conviction of sexual assault in violation of Article 120(b) must be reversed, but it disagrees about how and why that reversal should occur. The majority orders the charge and specification dismissed with prejudice, while the dissenters would “instruct the convening authority to withdraw the action and substitute a corrected action disapproving the finding of guilty.” Diss. op. at 16.
Chief Judge Stucky writes for the court, joined by Judge Ohlson and Senior Judge Erdmann (participating because Judge Sparks recused himself). Judge Ryan dissents, joined by Judge Maggs.
CAAF granted review of two issues questioning whether unlawful influence tainted the convening authority’s approval of the findings and sentence:
Specified issue: Whether a Deputy Judge Advocate General can commit unlawful command influence under Article 37, UCMJ, 10 U.S.C. § 837 (2012).
Granted issue: Whether military officials exerted actual unlawful command influence on the convening authority or created the appearance of doing so.
After Senior Chief Special Warfare (E-8) Barry was convicted of sexual assault in violation of Article 120(b), and sentenced to confinement for three years and a dishonorable discharge, the convening authority – Rear Admiral Patrick Lorge (who has since retired) – approved the findings and sentence as adjudged. The NMCCA then remanded the case for a new action because Lorge’s Staff Judge Advocate erroneously advised Lorge that he had no power to reverse the findings or reduce the sentence (based on the SJA’s reading of ALNAV 051/14, which I dissected here).
Lorge then took a closer look at the case, and he began to doubt the findings. He thought about reversing the conviction (a power he had in this case), but Lorge’s SJA advised against it. So Lorge discussed the case with then-Rear Admiral Crawford who at the time was the Deputy Judge Advocate General (DJAG) of the Navy and with whom Lorge had previously served. Crawford later became the actual Judge Advocate General of the Navy (TJAG) and was promoted to Vice Admiral. According to Lorge, Crawford advised Lorge “that approving the findings and sentence was the appropriate course of action in [Barry]’s case.” Slip op. at 6.
Ultimately, Lorge again approved the findings and sentence, but he modified the automatic reduction in rank to retain Barry at E-7. Then – in an unusual move – Lorge added the following language to his convening authority’s action:
In my seven years as a General Court-Martial Convening Authority, I have never reviewed a case that has given me greater pause than the one that is before me now. The evidence presented at trial and the clemency submitted on behalf of the accused was compelling and caused me concern as to whether SOCS Barry received a fair trial or an appropriate sentence. I encourage the Appellate Court to reconcile the apparently divergent case law addressing the testimony that an accused may present during sentencing for the purpose of reconsideration under R.C.M. 924. Additionally, having personally reviewed the record of trial, I am concerned that the judicial temperament of the Military Judge potentially calls into question the legality, fairness, and impartiality of this court-martial. The validity of the military justice system depends on the impartiality of military judges both in fact and in appearance. If prejudicial legal error was committed, I strongly encourage the Appellate Court to consider remanding this case for further proceedings or, in the alternative, disapproving the punitive discharge pursuant to Article 66(c)[,] UCMJ, thereby allowing the accused to retire in the rank that he last honorably served.
Slip op. at 2-3 (marks in original). On appeal, the Navy-Marine Corps CCA affirmed the findings and sentence, rejecting four assignments of error. CAAF summarily affirmed on April 27, 2017.
But after CAAF summarily affirmed, Lorge provided an affidavit to Barry’s defense counsel claiming that he didn’t believe the evidence proved Barry’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and that he wanted to disapprove the findings and sentence, however he did not do so because of political pressures related to the politicization of the military’s response to sexual assault (the #1 Military Justice Story of 2012). The primary source of that pressure was said to have been Lorge’s discussion of the case with Crawford. Barry then asked CAAF to reconsider its action, and CAAF ordered a post-trial fact-finding hearing to investigate the affidavit. The Chief Trial Judge of the Air Force presided over the hearing and then issued findings last year (discussed here).
CAAF then granted review because, as Chief Judge Stucky’s majority opinion explains in the first sentence:
It is not every day that a general court-martial convening authority begs our forgiveness for his failure of leadership in approving findings he believed should not be approved.
Slip op. at 1 (emphasis added). That is, however, the harshest criticism of Lorge in the decision.