In an unpublished en banc opinion in United States v. Soto, No. 38422 (A.F. Ct. Crim. App. Sep. 16, 2014) (link to unpub. op.), the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals reverses a conviction for forcible rape in violation of Article 120(a) (2006), finding that the Government failed to satisfy its burden to demonstrate that the appellant used physical force to cause the sexual intercourse.
The appellant was a military training instructor at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. A general order prohibited “developing or attempting to develop a personal, intimate, or sexual relationship with a trainee, including former basic trainees who remained in follow-on technical training school” and also prohibited “such relationships with a trainee’s immediate family member.” Slip op. at 2. The appellant engaged in numerous such relationships, leading to pleas of guilty before a general court-martial composed of a military judge alone to two specifications of violating a lawful general regulation, one specification of making a false official statement, and two specifications of adultery, in violation of Articles 92, 107 and 134.
However, the appellant was also charged with rape, aggravated sexual assault, and wrongful sexual contact involving his sexual encounters with one particular former trainee. He pleaded not guilty to these charges. The military judge acquitted the appellant of the aggravated sexual assault and wrongful sexual contact charges, but convicted him of the rape.
The rape charge involved a former trainee identified as Senior Airman (SrA) TS, who contacted the appellant after completing her basic training and flew from California to San Antonio in order to visit him. She planned to stay at the appellant’s apartment during the visit.
The incident that led to the rape specification took place soon after SrA TS arrived in San Antonio. She stated the appellant met her at the airport and as she entered his car, he promptly pushed her into her seat and kissed her. She stated she attempted to distract him by stating she wanted to go out to eat, but the appellant insisted they stop by his apartment to drop off her luggage. SrA TS stated she used the restroom in his apartment, and when she emerged from the restroom, the appellant hugged her, kissed her, took her to the bed, pulled down her shorts, and had sexual intercourse with her. SrA TS stated this was against her will; she pushed him and told him, “No, I’m not ready,” to no avail.
At trial and on appeal, the parties focused much of their attention on SrA TS’s actions following this charged rape. SrA TS continued to stay at the appellant’s apartment and slept in his bed for her five-day stay in San Antonio. When she returned to California, she continued to communicate with the appellant and sent him explicit pictures of herself. She also communicated with a friend from basic training that she was dating the appellant, that he was her boyfriend, and that the relationship was a “dream come true.” Although she considered herself in a relationship with the appellant, SrA TS also remained in an “on again, off again” relationship with her boyfriend in California during this time; however, the relationship was strained.
Over the next several months, SrA TS visited the appellant twice more, both times bringing family members to view houses for the family’s possible move to San Antonio. Some consensual sexual activity took place between SrA TS and the appellant during SrA TS’s visits to San Antonio, and she stayed with the appellant during each visit. During the last visit, SrA TS stated that she woke up after consuming alcohol to find herself unclothed in the appellant’s apartment smelling like she had sex. However, SrA TS could not state positively whether intercourse occurred, and she testified that she did not feel like she had sex. The appellant was acquitted of aggravated sexual assault and wrongful sexual contact resulting from this incident. Soon after this last visit, SrA TS and the appellant stopped communicating, and SrA TS married her boyfriend in California.
Slip op. at 3. The CCA considers these facts and the evidence presented at trial and concludes that the evidence is factually insufficient to support the rape conviction “on narrower grounds than the parties’ focus in their initial briefs, focusing solely on the evidence introduced about the charged rape itself.” Slip op. at 4. Writing for the court, Judge Weber avoids the appellant’s assertion “that SrA TS’s actions following the charged incident undermine her credibility and demonstrate her consent to sexual activity with the appellant,” focusing instead on the legal definition of force and the evidence presented on that element. Slip op. at 4.