CAAFlog » CAAF Opinions

CAAF decided the certified Navy case of United States v. Cooper, __ M.J. __, No. 18-0282/NA (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Tuesday, February 12, 2019. A nearly-unanimous court finds that an accused’s affirmative failure to request individual military defense counsel after a military judge discusses the right to make such a request with the accused is a knowing and intentional waiver of the right. The court reverses the decision of the Navy-Marine Corps CCA (that found a violation of the right) and remands for further review.

Chief Judge Stucky writes for the court, joined by all but Judge Sparks who dissents.

Every accused at a court-martial is detailed a military defense counsel, free of charge, without regard to indigence. The accused may even request a specific individual military defense counsel (IMC), however that person must be reasonably available as determined by service regulations (that generally narrow the choice considerably).

Yeoman Second Class (E-5) Cooper was convicted, by a general court-martial composed of members with enlisted representation, of three specifications of sexual assault and one specification of abusive sexual contact. He was sentenced to confinement for five years, reduction to E-1, total forfeitures, and a dishonorable discharge.

Cooper was represented by two detailed military defense counsel: Lieutenant (LT) Buyske and Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Gross. At trial, the military judge asked Cooper who he wanted to represent him (a standard question), and Cooper said that the wanted to be represented by just those two lawyers and by nobody else. But on appeal Cooper claimed that he also wanted to be represented by IMC, and that his detailed defense counsel failed to request one of the three people Cooper identified as potential IMC. The Navy-Marine Corps CCA ordered a post-trial factfinding hearing, concluded that Cooper was denied his statutory right to IMC, and reversed Cooper’s convictions.

The Judge Advocate General of the Navy then certified the case and four issues to CAAF, challenging the CCA’s findings that Cooper did not waive his right to IMC when he failed to make his desire known to the military judge, that Cooper was denied his statutory right to IMC, and that reversal is warranted as a result:

I. Did the lower court err not finding waiver of the right to request individual military counsel where Appellee was advised of his right to request an individual military counsel, agreed he understood the right but wanted instead to be represented by trial defense counsel, and made no motion for individual military counsel?

II. Did the lower court err in not applying the Strickland ineffective assistance test where the government and trial judge played no part in the defense’s failure to request individual military counsel, and if so, did Appellee suffer ineffective assistance of counsel?

III. If Strickland does not apply, did the lower court correctly find Appellee was deprived of his statutory right to request individual military counsel?

IV. Did the lower court err in it’s prejudice analysis for Appellee’s asserted deprivation of his statutory right to individual military counsel when Appellee did not preserve the issue at trial, raised the issue for the first time on appeal, and has alleged no specific prejudice?

A majority of CAAF answers the first issue in the affirmative, finding waiver based on the fact that Cooper “fully understood the nature of the right to IMC and how it would have applied to him,” slip op. at 9, and then told the military judge that he did not want any other lawyer to represent him. The court then orders a remand to the CCA for consideration of other issues that Cooper raised on appeal but the CCA did not address in its initial review.

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CAAF decided the Navy case of United States v. Forbes, __ M.J. __, No. 18-0304/NA (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on February  7, 2019. The court unanimously affirms guilty pleas to three specifications of sexual assault by causing bodily harm based on the appellant intentionally hiding his HIV-positive status from his sexual partners.

Judge Sparks writes for a unanimous court.

Aviation Maintenance Administrationman Second Class (E-5) Forbes pleaded guilty to various offenses, including four specifications of sexual assault by causing bodily harm (in the form of a non-consensual sexual act) in violation of Article 120(b)(1)(B) (2012) that were related to Forbes intentionally hiding his HIV-positive status from his sexual partners.

The theory that failure to inform a sexual partner of HIV status constitutes bodily harm was based on CAAF’s holding in United States v. Gutierrez, 74 M.J. 61 (C.A.A.F. 2015) (CAAFlog case page) (the #7 Military Justice Story of 2015), in which the court unanimously held that:

Appellant’s conduct included an offensive touching to which his sexual partners did not provide meaningful informed consent. See R. v. Cuerrier, [1998] 2 S.C.R. 371, 372 (Can.) (“Without disclosure of HIV status there cannot be a true consent.”).

74 M.J. at 68. The Navy-Marine Corps CCA applied Gutierrez to affirm Forbes’ guilty pleas in a published decision. United States v. Forbes, 77 M.J. 765, 769 (N-M Ct. Crim. App. 2018) (discussed here). CAAF then granted review of one issue:

Whether the Navy court erred in holding that appellant was provident to sexual assault by bodily harm due to his failure to inform his sexual partners of his HIV status.

In today’s opinion Judge Sparks clearly explains that the guilty plea in this case is entirely proper because “true consent must be informed,” slip op. at 4 n.4, and therefore:

Appellant committed a sexual assault each time he had sexual intercourse with one of the victims without first informing her of his HIV status and thereby lawfully obtaining her consent to the intercourse.

Slip op. at 4.

Congress repealed Article 120(b)(1)(B) (2012) in Section 5430 of the Military Justice Act of 2016 (that became effective on January 1, 2019), but it replaced it with a new Article 120(b)(2)(A) that prohibits “commit[ting] a sexual act upon another person without the consent of the other person.” CAAF’s holding in this case will almost certainly apply to that new offense.

Case Links:
NMCCA opinion
Blog post: NMCCA opinion analysis
Blog post: CAAF grants review
Appellant’s brief
Appelllee’s (N.M. App. Gov’t Div.) brief
Appellant’s reply brief
Amicus brief in support of Appellant (OutServe-SLDN, Inc.)
Blog post: Argument preview
Oral argument audio
CAAF opinion
Blog post: Opinion analysis

CAAF decided the Air Force case of United States v. Hale, __ M.J. __, No. 18-0162/AF (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on February 6, 2019. Addressing the limited (though recently expanded) UCMJ jurisdiction over members of the reserve components and the prosecution’s use of evidence of conduct that occurred outside of those limits in this case, a majority of CAAF finds the evidence was properly used to prove intent associated with conduct that was subject to UCMJ jurisdiction, and it affirms the findings, sentence, and decision of the Air Force CCA.

Judge Sparks writes for the court joined by all but Judge Ohlson, who dissents in part (disagreeing with the core holding of the majority opinion).

CAAF then granted review of two issues and specified a third:

Granted Issues:
I. The lower court found as a matter of law that personal jurisdiction does not exist outside of the hours of inactive-duty training. The lower court proceeded to find personal jurisdiction existed over Appellant because he was “staying” with his in-laws. Was this error?

II. Whether the lower court erred when it concluded the military judge correctly instructed the members they could convict Appellant for conduct “on or about” the dates alleged in each specification.

Specified Issue:
III. Whether the lower court erred in concluding the court-martial had jurisdiction over specification 2 of additional charge 1, as modified to affirm the lesser included offense of attempted larceny.

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CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Bodoh, __ M.J. __, No. 18-0201/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Wednesday, January 23, 2019. Reviewing a number of instances during the trial where the prosecution referenced the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) program – none of which drew a defense objection – the court finds some of the references improper but harmless, and it affirms the findings, sentence (with a correction), and decision of the Army CCA.

Judge Ohlson writes for a unanimous court.

CAAF granted review to determine:

Whether the military judge plainly erred by allowing the trial counsel to misstate the law and argue that the panel should base its verdict on SHARP training

Private (E-2) Bodoh was convicted contrary to his pleas of not guilty, by a general court-martial composed of officer members, of one specification of sexual assault and one specification of assault consummated by a battery. He was sentenced to confinement for five years, reduction to E-1, forfeiture of $1,546.80 per month for 60 months, and a bad-conduct discharge.

The granted issue involves three phases of the court-martial. First, during voir dire of the members, the prosecution asked questions that referenced the SHARP program. Second, when Bodoh testified in his own defense that the alleged sexual acts occurred but were consensual, the prosecution asked numerous questions about Bodoh’s understanding of the meaning of consent based on SHARP program training Bodoh had received, eventually drawing objections from the defense that led the military judge to give a curative instruction. Third, during closing arguments, the trial counsel repeatedly referenced the SHARP program (without objection from Bodoh’s defense counsel).

Judge Ohlson’s opinion for the unanimous CAAF repeatedly notes the defense counsel’s failures to object – and the associated application of the plan error test – but ultimately concludes that some of the references to SHARP training were not improper and the remaining references were not prejudicial.

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CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Nicola, 78 M.J. 223, No. 18-0247/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Wednesday, January 9, 2019. Emphasizing that an accused who testifies in his own defense may be disbelieved by the trier of fact (members, in this case), and that such disbelief may form the basis for a conviction, CAAF finds a conviction for indecent viewing legally sufficient and affirms the decision of the Army CCA.

Judge Maggs writes for a unanimous court.

CAAF granted review of a single issue:

Whether the evidence of indecent viewing in violation of Article 120c, UCMJ, was legally sufficient.

The offense of indecent viewing occurs when a person, without legal justification or lawful authorization, “knowingly and wrongfully views the private area of another person, without that other person’s consent and under circumstances in which that other person has a reasonable expectation of privacy.” Article 120c(a). The statute defines private area as the naked or underwear-clad genitalia, anus, buttocks, or female areola or nipple. A conviction is legally sufficient if, considering all of the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, a rational fact-finder could have found all essential elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt.

Staff Sergeant (E-6) Nicola was convicted of violating a general regulation, abusive sexual contact, and indecent viewing, by a general court-martial composed of officer members, and he was sentenced to reduction to E-1 and a bad-conduct discharge. Nicola’s convictions relate to his conduct with a high-intoxicated, junior female soldier, identified in CAAF’s opinion as Corporal AA.

Corporal AA testified during Nicola’s trial, and Nicola testified in his own defense. Their stories conflicted. Corporal AA claimed that Nicola sexually assaulted her in the shower in her barracks room (he was acquitted of an offense related to that alleged sexual assault). Nicola claimed that he only briefly saw Corporal AA in her bra as she undressed herself to get into the shower, and then that he later looked at her in the shower only to check on her welfare. Nicola focused on his version of events to claim that his conviction of indecent viewing is legally insufficient, while the Army Government Appellate Division asserted that Corporal AA’s version of events supports Nicola’s indecent viewing conviction (even though Nicola was acquitted of the related sexual assault allegation) and also that the members were free to disbelieve Nicola’s version of events and conclude that – even if he did not do everything Corporal AA claimed he did – he did more than he admitted to doing.

CAAF agrees with the Government Division, with Judge Maggs explaining that the court “find[s] the evidence legally sufficient to support each of the Government’s theories.” Slip op. at 6. The primary reason for that finding is Nicola’s testimony in his own defense.

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CAAF decided the Air Force case of United States v. King, 78 M.J. 218, No. 18-0288/AF (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Friday, January 4, 2019. Emphasizing the ability of prosecutors to prove guilt with circumstantial evidence, the court finds that a conviction of viewing child pornography is legally sufficient even though computer forensics could not conclusively prove that the images were knowingly viewed.

Chief Judge Stucky writes for a unanimous court.

Airman First Class (E-3) King was convicted contrary to his pleas of not guilty, by a general court-martial composed of a military judge alone, of one specification of attempting to view child pornography, one specification of viewing child pornography, and one specification of violating a general regulation. He was sentenced to confinement for nine months, reduction to E-1, and a dishonorable discharge. The Air Force CCA summarily affirmed the convictions.

The evidence against King included an admission by King that he searched for and looked at naked images of young girls, and it also included the results of a forensic examination of King’s electronic devices that revealed thousands of offensive images and three specific images of child pornography. Those three images were found on King’s home computer, but in hard-to-access places: two were found in a web browser’s cache (a storage location to make repeat browsing faster) and one was found in unallocated space (likely meaning that it was a deleted item). King was convicted of knowingly and wrongfully viewing those three specific images, and CAAF granted review of a single issue challenging the sufficiency of that conviction in light of the location of the images:

The military judge found Appellant guilty of viewing child pornography. But all of the alleged child pornography appellant allegedly viewed was found in unallocated space or a Google cache. Is the evidence legally sufficient?

CAAF finds the evidence legally sufficient, but Chief Judge Stucky’s opinion begins with the caveat that it does so, “given the very low threshold required to sustain a conviction for legal sufficiency.” Slip op. at 1.

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CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Tucker, 78 M.J. 183, No. 18-0254/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on November 29, 2018. In its second review of a conviction of violation of Article 134 for negligently providing alcohol to a minor, CAAF holds that negligence is an insufficient mens rea (mental state) for the offense. The court reverses the Army CCA (for the second time), reverses the guilty plea to the offense, and remands for further action.

Judge Ohlson writes for a unanimous court.

CAAF granted review to determine:

Whether the Army Court erred in holding that the minimum mens rea required under clauses 1 and 2 of Article 134, UCMJ, to separate wrongful from innocent conduct is simple negligence.

Private (E-1) Tucker pleaded guilty to multiple offenses, including a novel violation of Article 134 based on providing alcohol to a minor. During the plea inquiry Tucker told the military judge that “he did not know—and had no reason to believe—that [the recipient] was under the age of twenty-one.” Slip op. at 3. “The military judge eventually concluded that the mens rea for the charged offense was negligence . . . [and] the military judge accepted Appellant’s plea and entered a finding of guilty for the putative offense of negligently providing alcohol to an underage individual in violation of Article 134, UCMJ.” Slip op. at 3-4.

The Army CCA affirmed Tucker’s conviction in a published decision, concluding that the word neglects in Article 134 states a negligence standard. United States v. Tucker, 75 M.J. 872, 875 (A. Ct. Crim. App. Oct. 28, 2016). CAAF granted review, heard oral argument, and then reversed the CCA with a per curiam decision. United States v. Tucker, 76 M.J. 257, 258 (C.A.A.F. May 23, 2017) (CAAFlog case page). CAAF concluded that “the term ‘neglects’ simply refers to the failure of a servicemember to perform an act that it was his or her duty to perform. . . . [it] has no connection to the mens rea requirement that the government must prove under the statute.” 76 M.J. at 258. Mens rea then became the #8 Military Justice Story of 2017.

On remand the Army CCA again affirmed Tucker’s conviction, with another published decision holding that Tucker’s “admitted mens rea of simple negligence, when combined with the requirement that [his] conduct was to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces and of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces, and his admitted knowledge of the wrongfulness of his actions, sufficiently separates his criminal conduct from otherwise innocent conduct.” United States v. Tucker, 77 M.J. 696, 697 (A. Ct. Crim. App. Mar. 27, 2018) (marks omitted).

CAAF now reverses that decision too, and it reverses Tucker’s conviction, with Judge Ohlson explaining that “it is inappropriate to infer a negligence mens rea ‘in the absence of a statute or ancient usage.'” Slip op. at 5 (quoting United States v. Manos, 8 C.M.A. 734, 735, 25 C.M.R. 238, 239 (1958)).

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CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Criswell, 78 M.J. 136, No. 18-0091/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on November 16, 2018. The court granted review to determine whether the military judge erred by allowing the alleged victim to identify Criswell as her assailant during her testimony, even though she did not know him before the alleged assault and she was shown a picture of him (and only him) before trial in a way that was found to be unnecessarily suggestive. CAAF narrowly affirms the military judge ruling and Criswell’s convictions, with the majority applying a highly-deferential standard of review that focuses on Criswell’s appellate-stage objections to the military judge’s ruling. The dissenters, however, conduct a broader review, find numerous flaws in the military judge’s ruling, and would reverse the findings and authorize a rehearing.

Judge Maggs writes for the court, joined by Chief Judge Stucky and Judge Ryan. Judge Ohlson dissents, joined by Judge Sparks.

CAAF granted review of a single issue:

Whether the military judge abused his discretion in denying a defense motion to suppress the accusing witness’s in-court identification of Appellant.

A general court-martial composed of a military judge alone convicted Specialist (E-4) Criswell, contrary to his pleas of not guilty, of one specification of making a false official statement, two specifications of abusive sexual contact, one specification of assault consummated by battery, and one specification of indecent language in violation of Articles 107, 120, 128, and 134. Criswell was sentenced to confinement for two years, reduction to E-1, and a dishonorable discharge.

Criswell’s convictions relate to an allegation by Specialist (SPC) AM that she was verbally harassed and sexually touched on two separate occasions during a large party at a convention center. SPC AM is a white female; her assailant was a black man. The lighting was poor during both encounters and SPC AM did not know her assailant, but she saw his face well enough to provide a general description to another soldier at the party and based on that description the other soldier suspected Criswell. Military criminal investigators showed SPC AM a single picture of Criswell the next day, and she identified him at that time as her assailant “immediately and without hesitation.” Slip op. at 7 (quoting military judge’s findings of fact). Testifying in court, SPC AM again identified Criswell as her assailant. The military judge did not allow the prosecution to introduce SPC AM’s out-of-court identification of Criswell, but he allowed the in-court identification over a defense objection that challenged it as the unreliable product of the actions of the military investigators.

Considering those facts, all of CAAF’s judge’s agree that eyewitness identifications can lead to injustice. Judge Maggs observes for the majority that “eyewitness identifications are problematic in any criminal justice system.” Slip op. at 2. Judge Ohlson observes for the dissenters that “mistaken eyewitness identifications are responsible for more wrongful convictions than all other causes combined.” Diss. op. at 11 (quoting United States v. Brownlee, 454 F.3d 131, 142 (3d Cir. 2006)). But CAAF splits over how to review the eyewitness identification allowed in this case. While the ordinary standard of review for rulings admitting evidence is abuse of discretion – where findings of fact are reviewed for clear error and conclusions of law are reviewed de novo – the majority narrows that approach, with Judge Maggs explaining:

Applying this standard in this case, we do not undertake a de novo analysis of whether the in-court identification should have been admitted. Instead, we focus on Appellant’s objections to the military judge’s findings of fact, view of the law, and conclusions in applying the law to the facts.

Slip op. at 7 (emphasis added). The majority then addresses the challenges raised in Criswell’s “brief and reply brief,” slip 8, and during oral argument, slip op. at 8-9 (citing oral argument recording). See also slip op. at 11 (excusing the military judge’s failure to specifically address a factor because “Appellant does not contend, either in his briefs or his oral argument[,] that the military judge misunderstood this aspect [of the law]”). The dissenters, however, make no reference to Criswell’s briefs or to the oral argument while concluding that “the military judge committed three errors in this case.” Diss. op. at 4.

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CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Eugene, 78 M.J. __, No. 18-0209/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Monday, October 29, 2018. With a short opinion, CAAF holds that the question of whether an accused revoked consent to a search is a question of fact, not a question of law. Then, considering the deference generally afforded to a military judge’s factual findings, CAAF finds no error in the military judge’s finding that Eugene did not revoke the consent his wife gave to law enforcement to search Eugene’s phone. CAAF affirms the findings, sentence, and the decision of the Army CCA.

Chief Judge Stucky writes for a unanimous court.

CAAF granted review of two issues:

I. Whether Appellant’s request to Criminal Investigation Command (CID) that his cell phone be returned was a withdrawal of the third party consent to search given by Appellant’s wife in Appellant’s absence.

II. Whether the Army Court erred in determining the applicability of the inevitable discovery doctrine where (1) the CID agents failed to take any steps to obtain a warrant and (2) the case took a “dead-end” until the warrantless search.

CAAF answers the first issue in the negative and does not reach the second issue.

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CAAF decided the Navy case of United States v. Barry, 78 M.J. 70, 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.

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CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Jones, 78 M.J. 37, No. 17-0608/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.) on Tuesday, July 31, 2018. Applying the old corroboration rule (that was effective prior to this 2016 change), CAAF unanimously finds that sufficient independent evidence was admitted to corroborate a confession to larceny of military property, even after excluding the statement of a co-conspirator that the Army Government Appellate Division conceded was improperly admitted (and used as corroboration at trial). Because the confession was otherwise corroborated, the erroneous admission of the co-conspirator’s statement is harmless and the findings, sentence, and decision of the Army CCA are affirmed.

Judge Maggs writes for a unanimous court.

CAAF granted review of three issues that focused on the admission of the a co-conspirator’s statement:

I. Whether admission of an alleged co-conspirators confession to law enforcement violated M.R.E. 801(d)(2)(E).

II. Whether admission of the same confession violated Appellant’s Sixth Amendment right to confrontation.

III. Whether use of the confession to corroborate otherwise unsupported essential elements in Appellant’s own confession violated M.R.E. 304(g) and United States v. Adams, 74 M.J. 137 (C.A.A.F.).

Chief Warrant Officer (W2) Jones was convicted of two specifications of larceny of military property, by a general court-martial composed of a military judge alone, and was sentenced to confinement for 17 days, a reprimand, and to be dismissed. Jones was acquitted of a single specification of conspiracy to commit the charged larceny offenses.

In late 2013 and early 2014, Jones was a mobilized reservist deployed to Afghanistan where he “served as the officer in charge of his unit’s woodshop.” Slip op. at 3. Jones was convicted stealing tools from the woodshop and mailing them to his home in North Carolina (to use at the high school where he was a teacher in civilian life). Jones confessed those facts to Army investigators. But that confession alone was not enough to convict Jones, because a confession is inadmissible unless it is corroborated by independent evidence. See Mil. R. Evid. 304(c). See also our #10 Military Justice Story of 2015 (Confessions).

There was, however, an accomplice. Master Sergeant Addington participated in the acts, and he also confessed to military investigators. The prosecution offered that confession into evidence as a statement made by a co-conspirator during and in furtherance of the conspiracy. Such statements are not hearsay and are admissible under Mil. R. Evid. 801(d)(2)(E) (and the equivalent Fed. R. Evid. 801(d)(2)(E)). The defense objected but the military judge admitted Addington’s confession (providing ample corroboration for Jones’ confession) and Jones was convicted.

It’s pretty hard to defend the military judge’s decision to admit Addington’s confession to military investigators as a statement by a co-conspirator made during and in furtherance of the conspiracy, because confessing to the conspiracy is a pretty bad way to further it. Nevertheless, the Army court summarily affirmed Jones’ convictions. But after CAAF granted review, the Army Appellate Government Division conceded that the military judge was wrong to admit Addington’s confession. The Government Division maintained, however, that the military judge’s error was harmless because other evidence admitted at trial provided sufficient corroboration for Jones’ confession.

Today CAAF agreed. Writing for the unanimous court, Judge Maggs explains that: “We conclude that the military judge did not err in admitting Appellant’s statement. We further conclude that the military judge improperly admitted MSG Addington’s statement, but we find that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.” Slip op. at 2.

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Today CAAF issued a summary disposition in United States v. Burris, 78 M.J. 56, No.17-0605/AR (CAAFlog case page), reversing the Army CCA and remanding for a new Article 66 review:

On further consideration of the granted issue (77 M.J. 138 (C.A.A.F. 2017)), the briefs of the parties, and oral argument, we note that the United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that the mere failure to object to evidence and findings argument waives challenges to such evidence and argument and that the Government concedes that the lower court’s reasoning was in error. We agree with the Government that a mere failure to object to the admission of evidence and to findings argument constitutes forfeiture, not waiver. United States v. Andrews, 77 M.J. 393 (C.A.A.F. 2018); United States v. Knapp, 73 M.J. 33, 36 (C.A.A.F. 2014). We further note that the Government has argued for the first time in this Court that Appellant affirmatively waived his challenges to the admission of character evidence and argument. We leave this argument for the lower court to address on remand.

Accordingly, it is, by the Court, this 19th day of July, 2018,


That the decision of the United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals is set aside. The record of trial is returned to the Judge Advocate General of the Army for remand to the Court of Criminal Appeals for a new review under Article 66, Uniform Code of Military Justice, 10 U.S.C. § 866 (2012).

Disclosure: I represent Major Burris as his civilian appellate defense counsel and I argued this case at CAAF on his behalf.

Case Links:
 ACCA decision
• ACCA decision on reconsideration
 Blog post: CAAF grants
 Appellant’s brief 
 Appellee’s (Army Gov’t App. Div.) brief
 Appellant’s reply brief
• Blog post: Argument preview
• Oral argument audio
• Blog post: CAAF summary decision

CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Christensen, 78 M.J. 1, No. No. 17-0604/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Tuesday, July 10, 2018. In a narrowly-written opinion, the court distances itself from (but does not overrule) its precedent regarding when a servicemember is discharged from the service and court-martial jurisdiction ends. CAAF concludes that under the specific facts of this case, reason and policy dictate that the appellant was discharged prior to his court-martial and so the tribunal lacked personal jurisdiction to try him. The court reverses the findings and sentence, and the decision of the Army CCA, and dismisses the charges.

Judge Ohlson writes for the court, joined by Chief Judge Stucky and Judge Sparks. Judge Maggs writes separately, concurring, joined by Judge Ryan.

CAAF granted review of a single issue:

Whether Appellant was subject to court-martial jurisdiction.

In 2014, Private First Class (E-3) Christensen was convicted by a general court-martial of one specification of sexual assault in violation of Article 120 (2012), and sentenced to confinement for eight years, total forfeitures, reduction to E-1, and a dishonorable discharge.

A year before the trial – in March 2013 – Christensen was pending administrative separation from the Army and “was arrested by civilian authorities for a suspected sexual assault involving another soldier and he was placed in civilian confinement.” Slip op. at 2. While in that civilian confinement, Christensen’s administrative separation was approved by the separation authority, a sergeant “fully cleared [Christensen] from post,” his military identification card was taken from him, and a noncommissioned officer visited him in April and told him “he was ‘out of the Army now’ and wished him good luck.” Slip op. at 2.

That, however, is not enough to discharge a servicemember from the Armed Forces under CAAF’s precedent. Rather, a servicemember is discharged (and court-martial jurisdiction ends) only after three things happen: “(1) the delivery of a discharge certificate (a DD Form 214); (2) a final accounting of pay; and (3) the completion of the clearing process that is required under service regulations.” Slip op. at 7 (citing United States v. Hart, 66 M.J. 273, 276-79 (C.A.A.F. 2008)).

Christensen was cleared, and a DD-214 was mailed to his home (stating his date of discharge as April 17, 2013), but his final accounting of pay was delayed by the chief of justice (senior prosecutor) at Fort Stewart, GA. That military prosecutor:

acted on his own authority and without coordinating with anyone in command. Further, neither he nor the OSJA contacted Appellant to let him know that they were halting his final pay. At the jurisdiction motions hearing, the chief of justice testified that he wanted to have the ability to exercise military jurisdiction over Appellant until he could “confirm that the civilians were going to prosecute this [sexual assault case] in a way that we felt was appropriate.”

Slip op. at 3-4 (marks in original). Judge Ohlson’s majority opinion also observes that:

Despite the actions of the chief of justice beginning in April 2013, it was not until August or September when the brigade commander formally requested a revocation of Appellant’s DD Form 214. Then on September 26, the Government preferred one charge and specification against Appellant. On September 30, the soldier processing center voided Appellant’s DD Form 214 and revoked his discharge. However, it was not until December that anyone from Appellant’s unit notified him that he was still considered a member of the armed forces and that he was going to be court-martialed.

Slip op. at 5. Thereafter Christensen “had difficulty using many of the facilities that would be readily available to active duty soldiers—such as the dining hall—because he was not on the roster of active duty military personnel. He likewise did not have an identification card, assigned quarters, or any of his own uniforms. Moreover, [Christensen] was not paid from April 2013 until January 2014.” Slip op. at 5-6.

Christensen challenged the existence of jurisdiction at trial and also on appeal at the Army CCA, but the challenge was denied on the basis that “there was no final accounting of pay” (as required under CAAF’s precedent, including Hart), and so there was no valid discharge. Slip op. at 6.

CAAF does not disagree with the conclusion that there was no final accounting of pay, but the majority nevertheless finds no jurisdiction to try Christensen by court-martial in 2014 because “to hold otherwise would clearly go against ‘reason or policy.'” Slip op. at 7 (quoting United States v. Nettles, 74 M.J. 289, 291 (C.A.A.F. 2015) (CAAFlog case page)).

Judge Maggs’ concurring opinion agrees with the majority’s conclusion that there was no jurisdiction, but it “prioritize[s] statutes and regulations over judge-made law.” Con. op. at 3. Seemingly uncomfortable with the majority’s embrace of a reason or policy exception to the three-part test from Hart, Judge Maggs and Judge Ryan would determine the existence of a jurisdiction-ending discharge by first identifying whether a statute or regulation “specifies when a discharge has occurred,” and if one does then “the Court would simply apply that statute or regulation.” Con. op. at 2. And in this case there is such a regulation: Army Regulation 635-200, “which provides, with certain exceptions not relevant here, that a discharge ‘is effective at 2400 on the date of notice of discharge to the Soldier.'” Con. op. at 2 (quoting AR 635-200 at ¶ 1-29.c).

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CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Armstrong, 77 M.J. 465, No. 17-0556/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Thursday, June 28, 2018. The court holds that assault consummated by a battery is not a lesser included offense of abusive sexual contact by causing bodily harm because even though both offenses require bodily harm, a battery must involve unlawful force or violence, while abusive sexual contact need only involve a certain mental state. Nevertheless, reviewing for plain error (because the defense failed to preserve the issue with a timely objection) CAAF finds no material prejudice to the defense in this case and affirms the conviction of assault consummated by a battery and the decision of the Army CCA.

Judge Maggs writes for the court, joined by Chief Judge Stucky and Judge Ryan. Judge Ohlson writes a separate concurring opinion, joined by Judge Sparks.

Captain (O-3) Armstrong was charged with abusive sexual contact by causing bodily harm in violation of Article 120(d) (incorporating Article 120(b)(1)(B)) (2012). A general court-martial composed of members convicted Armstrong of assault consummated by a battery as a lesser included offense, and sentence him to be dismissed. The Army CCA summarily affirmed the findings and sentence.

The factual basis for the convicton was that the alleged victim (the civilian wife of another officer) reported that she fell asleep on a couch during a party and awoke to Armstrong touching her. The charge sheet alleged that Armstrong:

did . . . commit sexual contact upon [Mrs. G.]., to wit: touching through the clothing the genitalia of the said [Mrs. G.], by causing bodily harm to the said [Mrs. G.], to wit: wedging his hands between her thighs.

Slip op. at 2 (quoting charge sheet) (modifications in original). Sexual contact is a legal term of art that encompasses touching “with an intent to abuse, humiliate, or degrade any person,” or “with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person.” Article 120(g)(2)(A) and (B).

In advance of trial Armstrong’s defense counsel requested instructions relevant to a possible lesser included offense of assault consummated by a battery, including “a mistake of fact instruction with regard to battery, the lesser included offense.” Slip op. at 3 (marks omitted) (emphasis added). Despite this and other requested instructions referencing battery as a lesser included offense, CAAF finds that:

Defense counsel, however, never expressly agreed that assault consummated by a battery was a lesser included offense of abusive sexual contact by causing bodily harm.

Slip op. at 3. But at trial, when it was time to instruct the members, the prosecution requested that they be instructed that they could convict Armstrong of assault consummated by a battery as a lesser included offense of abusive sexual contact. The military judge asked Armstrong’s defense counsel for their position, to which the defense responded: “Taking no position on it, judge.” Slip op. at 3 (quoting record).

Bad move. That equivocation is why CAAF now affirms Armstrong’s conviction of assault consummated by a battery despite finding that it is not actually a lesser included offense of abusive sexual contact.

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CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Williams, 77 M.J. 459, No. 17-0285/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Wednesday, June 27, 2018. In this Hills trailer case involving the improper use of charged offenses for propensity purposes, CAAF holds that the Army CCA wrongly held that the circumstances involve an exception to Hills. The court reverses convictions of rape and forcible sodomy, affirms other convictions, and authorizes a rehearing.

Chief Judge Stucky writes for a unanimous court.

In 2013, Sergeant (E-5) Williams was convicted of raping his first wife (Charge I), and forcibly sodomizing and battering his second wife (Charges II and III), by a general court-martial composed of members with enlisted representation. Before trial, the prosecution gave notice of its intent to use the charged sexual offenses against each wife as evidence of Williams’ propensity to commit the charged offenses against the other wife; a tactic that was somewhat common in military practice at the time but that CAAF later held to be improper, in United States v. Hills, 75 M.J. 350 (C.A.A.F. Jun. 27, 2016) (CAAFlog case page).

Williams’ defense counsel filed a motion to preclude the prosecution from using the charged offenses for propensity purposes. “[T]he military judge questioned the ripeness of the issue, signaled that the proper time to address the issue would be when discussing panel instructions, and did not then explicitly rule on the motion.” Slip op. at 4. At trial, however, the defense did not renew its objection, and a different military judge instructed the panel that it could use the charged rapes (Charge I) as evidence of Williams’ propensity to commit the charged forcible sodomy (Charge II), and also that:

You may also consider the evidence of such other acts of sexual assaults for its tendency, if any, to show the accused’s propensity or predisposition to engage in sexual assault.

Slip op. at 5 (quoting record). Williams was convicted. On appeal the Army CCA affirmed the convictions, concluding that “this case is an exception to Hills.” United States v. Williams, No. 20130582, slip op. at 2 (A. Ct. Crim. App. Jan 12, 2017) (link to slip op.). The CCA reasoned:

Charge I is entirely unaffected by Hills. When deliberating on evidence with regards to the Specification of Charge I, the panel was not allowed to consider propensity. Additionally, with regards to the forcible sodomy specifications contained in Charge II, the only propensity evidence the panel was allowed to consider stemmed from a specification that had been independently proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

CCA op. at 2 (emphasis in original). Put differently, the CCA concluded that the propensity instruction only allowed the members to use Charge I to prove Charge II, and since Williams was convicted of Charge I first, the facts of that charge were properly used to prove Charge II.

CAAF wholly rejects the CCA’s reasoning in yesterday’s opinion, with Chief Judge Stucky expressing concern that “this is the third case in which we have had to correct a Court of Criminal Appeals’ judgment on this issue,” slip op. at 1-2, and that “in the wake of Hills, our lower courts have attempted to impermissibly narrow that holding by carving out exceptions that run contrary to an accused’s presumption of innocence,” slip op. at 6.

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