CAAFlog » Capital Cases

CAAF decided the Consolidated motion to compel funding for learned counsel, a mitigation specialist, and a fact investigator; for appointment of appellate team members; and for a stay of proceedings, in the capital Army case of United States v. Hennis, __ M.J. __, No. 17-0263/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Monday, November 20, 2017. Concluding that there is no constitutional, statutory, or regulatory authority for the court to grant the motion, CAAF denies it.

Judge Ohlson writes for a unanimous court.

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Today CAAF issued a per curiam decision in United States v. Gray, __ M.J. __, No. 17-0525 (link to slip op.).

The opinion addresses a writ-appeal petition filed by Ronald Gray, who is one of only four prisoners on military death row (our #2 Military Justice Story of 2016). Finding no jurisdiction, CAAF dismisses the writ-appeal petition with prejudice. Judge Ohlson is recused and took no part in the decision.

In this post from September I discussed recent developments in the case, including the writ-appeal petition. The petition before CAAF challenges the Army CCA’s denial of a writ of error coram nobis earlier this year. 76 M.J. 579 (link to slip op.).

Coram nobis is “a belated extension of the original proceeding during which the error allegedly transpired.” United States v. Denedo, 556 U.S. 904, 912-913 (2009). In Denedo, the Supreme Court concluded that a CCA “has jurisdiction to entertain [a] request for a writ of coram nobis” in a court-martial where direct review was over and the conviction was final. 556 U.S. at 914 (emphasis added). This is because: 

respondent’s request for coram nobis is simply a further step in his criminal appeal, [and so] the NMCCA’s jurisdiction to issue the writ derives from the earlier jurisdiction it exercised to hear and determine the validity of the conviction on direct review.

556 U.S. at 914 (marks and internal citation omitted). Furthermore:

Because the NMCCA had jurisdiction over respondent’s petition for coram nobis, the CAAF had jurisdiction to entertain respondent’s appeal from the NMCCA’s judgment.

556 U.S. at 915 (emphasis added).

But CAAF reaches a different conclusion in Gray:

The threshold question is whether this Court has jurisdiction to entertain a request for coram nobis in a case that is final in all respects under the UCMJ. We hold that we do not.

Slip op. at 2.

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In 1988 Specialist Ronald Gray, U.S. Army, was convicted of the premeditated murder of two women, the attempted premeditated murder of a third woman, three specifications of rape, two specifications of robbery, two specifications of forcible sodomy, and also of burglary and larceny, contrary to his pleas of not guilty, by a general court-martial composed of members with enlisted representation.

The members sentenced Gray to death, a dishonorable discharge, total forfeitures, and reduction to E-1. He is one of only four prisoners on military death row, our #2 Military Justice Story of 2016 (the others are Hennis, Akbar, and Hasan; Witt is pending a sentence rehearing that could return him to death row; Loving’s capital sentence was commuted).

Prior to Gray’s court-martial, in a wholly separate North Carolina proceeding, Gray pleaded guilty to the murder and rape of two additional women, and other offenses, for which he received three consecutive life sentences and five concurrent life sentences.

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CAAF review of capital sentences is mandatory. See Article 67(a)(1). The sentence to death for Master Sergeant Timothy Hennis (U.S. Army Ret.), for three specifications of premeditated murder, was affirmed by the Army CCA last October (discussed here) and the case was docketed at CAAF on March 2. On March 6 the court issued the following order:

No. 17-0263/AR. U.S. v. Timothy B. Hennis. CCA 20100304. It is ordered that the briefs of the Appellant and Appellee, and the reply of the Appellant, if any, in the above-captioned case may be filed electronically, but should counsel file said pleadings in a paper format, such pleadings shall conform in all respects to the requirements of Rule 37(a), Rules of Practice and Procedure, with the additional requirement that they be printed on 3-hole pre-punched paper. Additionally, the joint appendix shall be printed on 3-hole pre-punched paper and otherwise comply in all respects with Rule 24(f)(2). The briefs and the reply, if any, shall be divided into the following parts:

Part A shall set forth systemic issues and case-specific issues raised before the Court of Criminal appeals but not previously decided by this Court.

Part B shall set forth all issues not raised before the court below.

Part C shall set forth systemic issues previously decided by this Court but raised to avoid waiver; these issues may be listed without argument as an exception to Rule 24(a), but must cite pertinent authority to support the position taken.

All exhibits cited in the pleadings filed before this Court shall be included in the joint appendix.

It is the third capital case on CAAF’s docket in as many terms. Last term CAAF reinstated the Air Force CCA’s reversal of the capital sentence in United States v. Witt, 75 M.J. 380 (C.A.A.F. Jul. 19, 2016) (CAAFlog case page), and the term before that it affirmed the capital sentence in United States v. Akbar, 74 M.J. 364 (C.A.A.F. Aug 19, 2015), cert. denied, __ U.S. __ (Oct. 3, 2016) (CAAFlog case page).

Hennis is one of only four prisoners on military death row, our #2 Military Justice Story of 2016. The others are Gray, Akbar, and Hasan. Witt is pending a sentence rehearing that could return him to death row. Loving’s capital sentence was commuted to life without the possibility of parole.

After now bouncing around the Mil Jus system for nearly 30 years, the sentence of Private Dwight Loving was today commuted to life without the possibility of parole. See Military Times coverage here. H/t OFL

The last person executed as the result of a court-martial was Army Private First Class John A. Bennett’s, whose convictions for the rape and attempted murder of a child led the Court of Military Appeals to observe that “seldom, if ever, have we been faced with a record which revealed a more vicious offense, or an accused who had less to entitle him to any consideration by the fact finders.” United States v. Bennett, 21 CMR 223, 225 (C.M.A. 1956).

Bennett was hanged in the boiler room of the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth on April 13, 1961. See Dwight H. Sullivan, The Last Line of Defense: Federal Habeas Review of Military Death Penalty Cases, 144 Mil. L. Rev. 1, 76 (1994) (citing James J. Fisher, A Soldier is Hanged, Kan. City Star, Apr. 13, 1961, at 7).

The military gallows have been quiet since then, but the military’s death row experienced a flurry of activity in 2016 with notable developments in four capital cases.

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Last week CAAF denied a petition for extraordinary relief filed by Master Sergeant Timothy Hennis (U.S. Army Ret.), who is one of only five military death row inmates (though a potential sixth – Witt – is pending a sentence rehearing):

No. 17-0099/AR. In Re Timothy B. Hennis. On consideration of the petition for extraordinary relief in the nature of a writ of mandamus or other appropriate writ, and Petitioner’s motion to stay proceedings of the United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals pending petition for extraordinary writ, it is ordered that said motion is hereby denied, and said petition is hereby denied without prejudice to raising the issues asserted during the course of normal appellate review.

The petition is available here and includes the assertion that:

the actions of the Judge Advocate General of the Army (Army JAG), Deputy Judge Advocate General (DJAG), and Chief Judges of the Army Court of Criminal Appeals (Army Court) create an appearance the deck is stacked against the petitioner during the ongoing review of his death sentence.

Pet. at 7.

Hennis was tried three times for the gruesome 1985 rape and murder of Kathryn Eastburn, the wife of an Air Force captain who was out of town on temporary duty, as well as the murder of their two daughters. The first two prosecutions were by state authorities in North Carolina. First, Hennis was convicted of the murders in 1986 and he was sentenced to death. The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed that conviction in 1988. Hennis was then retried by North Carolina in 1989, and he was acquitted. After the acquittal Hennis elected to remain in the military on the retired list and, in 2006, he was recalled to active duty and a general court-martial convicted him and sentenced him to death. The Army CCA affirmed the sentence two months ago. United States v. Hennis, 75 M.J. 796, No. 20100304 (A. Ct. Crim. App. Oct. 6, 2016) (en banc) (discussed here).

In a published opinion in United States v. Hennis, 75 M.J. 796, No. 20100304 (A. Ct. Crim. App. Oct. 6, 2016) (en banc) (link to slip op.), the Army Court of Criminal Appeals unanimously affirms the findings and the sentence to death of Master Sergeant Timothy Hennis (U.S. Army Ret.) for three specifications of premeditated murder.

Our #2 military justice story of 2010 was the conviction and capital sentence of Hennis.. Hennis is one of only five current military death row inmates (the others are Gray, Loving, Akbar, and Hasan; Witt is pending a sentence rehearing).

Hennis was tried three times for the gruesome 1985 rape and murder of Kathryn Eastburn, the wife of an Air Force captain who was out of town on temporary duty, as well as the murder of their two daughters. The first two prosecutions were by state authorities in North Carolina. First, Hennis was convicted of the murders in 1986 and he was sentenced to death. The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed that conviction in 1988. Hennis was then retried by North Carolina in 1989, and he was acquitted.

Hennis decided to remain on active duty in the Army after his acquittal, and he retired in 2004. However, retired members of an active component aren’t retired in the traditional sense of the word; they remain in the military, they’re subject to the UCMJ, and their retirement pay isn’t a pension but rather “is reduced compensation for reduced current services.” McCarty v. McCarty, 453 U.S. 210, 222 (1981). And so when advances in DNA allowed investigators to determine with scientific certainty that sperm found in the body of the murdered woman came from Hennis, he was recalled to active duty in 2006 and tried by court-martial for the murders.

He was convicted and, on April 15, 2010, the court-martial sentenced him to death, dishonorable discharge, total forfeitures, and E-1.

After rejecting numerous assertions of error (including jurisdictional challenges) the Army CCA finds the capital sentence appropriate for Hennis, concluding:

We are required to assess the proportionality of appellant’s death sentence. Under Article 66(c), UCMJ, we conclude the approved sentence is correct in law and fact. Further, under the circumstances of this case, including appellant’s rape of one of the murder victims, the vulnerability inherent in the young ages of the other two murder victims, and appellant’s mutilation of all three murder victims, we conclude the adjudged and approved death sentence fits the crimes of which he was found guilty. We further find “the sentence is generally proportional to those imposed by other jurisdictions in similar situations.”

Slip op. at 106 (citations omitted).

CAAF decided the capital Air Force case of United States v. Witt, 75 M.J. 380, No. 15-0260/AF (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Tuesday, July 19, 2016. In a short opinion the court sets aside the second decision of the Air Force CCA (that affirmed the sentence of death) and reinstates the first decision (that reversed the sentence of death), authorizing a sentence rehearing.

Judge Stucky writes for a unanimous court.

In 2005 a general court-martial composed of twelve officer members convicted Senior Airman Witt of the premeditated murder of a fellow Airman and his wife, and also of the attempted murder of another Airman, and sentenced Witt to death. About 18 months later the prosecution team published a detailed first-person account of the trial proceedings in the Air Force JAG Corps magazine, The Reporter (available here).

In 2013 Witt’s death sentence was set aside by the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals sitting en banc (discussed here). The CCA unanimously concluded that Witt’s trial defense team was deficient in failing to investigate three areas relevant for the sentencing portion of the court-martial. But the court split 3-2 on the question of prejudice, narrowly finding that had Witt’s counsel not been deficient then the members might not have adjudged the death sentence. The CCA remanded for a sentence rehearing.

But then the Government sought reconsideration by the CCA, and in a dramatic reversal the court reinstated Witt’s death sentence in a second en banc decision issued in 2014 (discussed here). As it had in the first decision, the CCA again found that Witt’s trial defense counsel were deficient. But on the crucial question of prejudice the court split 4-2 to find that Witt was not prejudiced by his counsel’s errors, and accordingly it approved the adjudged sentence of death. This reversal of fortune was our #7 Military Justice Story of 2014.

Because Witt had an approved sentence of death, CAAF’s review was mandatory (see Article 67(a)(1)), and the court specified two issues that questioned whether the AFCCA could reinstate the capital sentence in the way that it did:

I. Whether a court of criminal appeals sitting en banc can reconsider a previous en banc decision of that court pursuant to statutory authority, applicable precedent, or inherent authority?

II. Whether a decision of a court of criminal appeals sitting en banc can be reconsidered en banc when the composition of the en banc court has changed?

In today’s decision CAAF holds that a CCA does have the authority to reconsider en banc a prior en banc decision, however it finds that three of the AFCCA judges who participated in the reconsideration were disqualified from doing so.

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Here (subscription req’d) is a link to Marcia Coyle’s piece in the National Law Journal Supreme Court Brief discussing the Akbar cert. petition and amicus brief from NIMJ, featuring quotes from NIMJ’s Prof. Stephen Vladeck.  From the portion visible outside the firewall:

In the past eight years, the Obama administration has been no stranger to charges it has violated separation of powers or exceeded its statutory authority. But a new charge comes from an unusual source—the military justice system—in a U.S. Supreme Court petition that has the potential to dismantle the military’s capital punishment scheme.

Our prior coverage of the cert. petition is here and here.  H/t JB/SV

The Supreme Court received two additional briefs in support of the petition for certiorari in Akbar v. United States, No. 15-1257 (Akbar CAAFlog case page).  The first from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), here, supports the defense’s substantive argument in their petition asking for the SCOTUS to reverse its prior decision in Loving v. United States, 517 U.S. 748 (1996), which found the military’s capital sentencing scheme to be constitutional.  See prior coverage here.  The second from the Air Force and Navy-Marine Corps appellate defense shops, here, addresses the related issue, which is not directly addressed in the petition for certiorari, that trial defense counsel for the accused was not qualified, in accordance with prevailing standards, to handle a capital case.

Here is the NIMJ amicus brief in support of the Petition for Certiorari in Akbar v. United States, No. 15-1257.  The general theme of the brief is that “in contrast to [] civilian criminal convictions, Congress specifically intended for [the Supreme] Court to take a more active role in supervising military convictions on direct appeal.”  Brief at 18.

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Senior Airman Andrew Witt is one of only six military death row inmates (the others are Gray, Loving, Akbar, Hennis, and Hasan). Witt’s capital sentence in the fourth oldest, adjudged in 2005 after he was convicted of the premeditated murder of a fellow Airman and that Airman’s wife, and of the attempted murder of a third Airman.

The Air Force CCA’s reversal and then reinstatement of the capital sentence was our #7 Military Justice Story of 2014.

Last November (discussed here) CAAF specified two issues for review in the case related to the CCA’s decisions (of note: Article 67(a)(1) requires CAAF to review all capital cases):

No. 15-0260/AF. U.S. v. Andrew P. Witt. CCA 36785.  On further consideration of the record, it is ordered that the parties brief the following specified issues:

WHETHER A COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEALS SITTING EN BANC CAN RECONSIDER A PREVIOUS EN BANC DECISION OF THAT COURT PURSUANT TO STATUTORY AUTHORITY, APPLICABLE PRECEDENT, OR INHERENT AUTHORITY?

WHETHER A DECISION OF A COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEALS SITTING EN BANC CAN BE RECONSIDERED EN BANC WHEN THE COMPOSITION OF THE EN BANC COURT HAS CHANGED?

The parties will brief these issues contemporaneously, and file their briefs on or before January 5, 2016. Reply briefs on these issues may be filed on or before January 15, 2016.

Briefing is complete and the briefs are available on CAAF’s website at the following links:

Appellant’s Briefs:
• Appellant’s primary brief
Appellant’s reply brief
Appellant’s brief on specified issues
Appellant’s reply brief on specified issues

Government’s Briefs:
Government’s primary brief
Government’s brief on specified issues
Government’s reply brief on specified issues

The appellant’s primary brief raises 65 issues. Oral argument is scheduled for Tuesday, April 26, 2016, at 9:30 a.m.

Now, in an order issued last week, CAAF is limiting that argument to only the two specified issues:

No. 15-0260/AF. U.S. v. Andrew P. Witt. CCA 36785. In the order of February 9, 2016, in the above-referenced case, oral argument was set for April 26, 2016, at 9:30 a.m., with the issues to be argued to be provided in a future order. Upon consideration of the issues in the case, the Court will hear oral argument only on two issues that were specified in the Court’s order dated November 20, 2015. Each side is allotted 20 minutes to present oral argument on these issues. In view of the existence of a vacant position on the Court, notice is hereby given that the Chief Judge has called upon Senior Judge Walter T. Cox III to perform judicial duties in the above-referenced case, and that Senior Judge Cox has consented to perform judicial duties in said case under Article 142(e)(1)(A)(ii), Uniform Code of Military Justice, 10 U.S.C. § 942(e)(1)(A)(ii) (2012).

Our #7 Military Justice Story of 2014 was the Air Force CCA’s reinstatement of the death sentence in the case of Senior Airman Witt, one of only six prisoners on military death row (the others are Gray, Loving, Akbar, Hennis, and Hasan). In 2005 a general court-martial composed of twelve officer members convicted Witt of the premeditated murder of a fellow Airman and his wife, and of the attempted murder of another Airman, and sentenced him to death. About 18 months later the prosecution team published a detailed first-person account of the trial proceedings in the Air Force JAG Corps magazine, The Reporter (available here).

In 2013 Witt’s death sentence was set aside by the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals sitting en banc (discussed here). The CCA unanimously concluded that Witt’s trial defense team was deficient in failing to investigate three areas relevant for the sentencing portion of the court-martial: Behavioral changes in Witt after a motorcycle accident that occurred four months before the murders, the mental health history of Witt’s mother, and expressions of remorse by Witt that were observed by a deputy sheriff. It split 3-2 on the question of prejudice, narrowly finding that “had the members been confronted with this additional mitigating evidence, there is a reasonable likelihood that at least one member would have struck a different balance between the aggravating and mitigating factors and would have returned with a different sentence.” 72 M.J. at 766. The CCA remanded for a sentence rehearing where Witt could have received another death sentence, a sentence of confinement for life without eligibility for parole, or the mandatory minimum sentence of confinement for life with eligibility for parole.

But then the Government sought reconsideration by the CCA, and in a dramatic reversal the court reinstated Witt’s death sentence in a second en banc decision issued in 2014. United States v. Witt, 73 M.J. 738 (A.F. Ct. Crim. App. Jun. 30, 2014) (discussed here).

The case was forwarded to CAAF, where review is required by Article 67(a)(1).

Last Friday, CAAF specified an issue for briefing that questions the appropriateness of the CCA’s decision on reconsideration:

No. 15-0260/AF. U.S. v. Andrew P. Witt. CCA 36785.  On further consideration of the record, it is ordered that the parties brief the following specified issues:

WHETHER A COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEALS SITTING EN BANC CAN RECONSIDER A PREVIOUS EN BANC DECISION OF THAT COURT PURSUANT TO STATUTORY AUTHORITY, APPLICABLE PRECEDENT, OR INHERENT AUTHORITY?

WHETHER A DECISION OF A COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEALS SITTING EN BANC CAN BE RECONSIDERED EN BANC WHEN THE COMPOSITION OF THE EN BANC COURT HAS CHANGED?

The parties will brief these issues contemporaneously, and file their briefs on or before January 5, 2016. Reply briefs on these issues may be filed on or before January 15, 2016.

Opinion here. Judge Olson writes for a three judge majority. Judge Baker dissents, joined by Chief Judge Erdmann.

Prior coverage at the CAAFlog case page.

More to follow.