Last month the Associated Press produced a report titled: Opaque military justice system shields child sex abuse cases.
Focusing on child exploitation prosecutions (a particularly heart-wrenching kind of case), the report broadly condemns the military justice system and the Department of Defense for failing to make court-martial records easily accessible to the public, with the authors asserting that “while child sex crimes may not be swept under the rug, the Defense Department does not make it easy for the public to learn about them.” Of course, blaming the system or the DoD is nonsensical, as it is Congress and the President that make the rules.
In part, the report notes that “records from most federal court cases are available online through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, known as PACER. The military does not have a comparable repository.” This is certainly true. But implementing PACER (or an equivalent) is hardly simple, as it would require standardized rules for the handling, marking, and redaction of trial-stage documents in order to permit public release. Even the Associated Press admits that not everything should be public knowledge, as it does not provide the names of the child victims whose stories it uses to add emotion to its report. The military justice system currently relies on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to address redaction and release, protecting the privacy rights of victims, witnesses, and even the accused. That process isn’t fast, but it’s what the law requires.
Notably, the report makes an early issue (in the third paragraph) of a Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigation that the Associated Press sought under FOIA but NCIS refused to release on privacy grounds. “The report was released only after AP appealed,” the report explains. However, a whopping nineteen paragraphs later it is revealed that:
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service initially said releasing its 198-page investigative report on DeSmit would constitute “an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” The AP appealed the denial, and the Navy judge advocate general’s office overruled NCIS, declaring the agency’s decision overly broad and instructing it to release all material within the report not exempted from disclosure. NCIS investigations, which include evidence from the crime scene and witness interviews, are not court documents but are used by military leaders to decide what action to take against a service member.
(emphasis added). How a PACER-like system will provide better access to things that are not court documents is anybody’s guess.
The House version of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act included a provision relating to “public availability of records of certain proceedings under the uniform code of military justice” that would have required publication of materials including “any motions and documents filed in connection with the proceeding.” I noted that provision in this post and you can read it in this document (it’s at section 556). However, the provision did not make it into the final bill. The AP report makes no mention of this provision, and sheds no light on why it wasn’t included in the final bill.
Yet the report does highlight one odd fact: court-martial results published by the services lack information on pretrial agreements:
After DeSmit’s conviction in January, the Marine Corps summed up the case in two sentences.
“At a General Court-Martial at Okinawa, Japan, Chief Warrant Officer 4 D. E. DeSmit was convicted by a military judge alone of conspiracy to commit sexual assault and rape of children, aggravated sexual abuse of a child, sexual abuse of a child and possession of child pornography. The military judge sentenced the accused to 144 years of confinement, a reprimand and dismissal,” a summary of the court-martial released by the Marine Corps read.
And that’s all the service would have said publicly, had the AP not pressed for more.
The pretrial agreement in the DeSmit case capped confinement at 20 years. While this fact likely would have been disclosed eventually (in the CCA’s opinion during mandatory appellate review), the published results present an incomplete picture of the sentence.
The publication of court-martial results is a relatively recent phenomenon. It’s unclear why those results don’t include information on pretrial agreements; seemingly crucial information. Sadly, the Associated Press seemingly made no effort to discover the reason.
There are good reasons to want greater public access to military justice records. Like any system, there’s still room to improve military justice. But the AP’s claim that the system is “opaque” and “shields child sex abuse cases” is overblown.