CAAFlog » October 2016 Term » United States v. Fetrow

CAAF decided the certified Air Force case of United States v. Fetrow, 76 M.J. 181, No. 16-0500/AF (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Monday, April 17, 2017. Reviewing the Air Force CCA’s determination of when evidence of uncharged alleged child molestation is admissible under Mil. R. Evid. 414, CAAF agrees with the CCA’s determination that such evidence must (1) constitute an offense under the UCMJ, federal law, or state law when the uncharged allegation occurred, and (2) be within the categories set forth in the version of M.R.E. 414(d)(2)(A)-(G) in effect at the time of trial. CAAF affirms the Air Force CCA’s decision that reversed child molestation convictions and a sentence that included confinement for 25 years.

Judge Sparks writes for a unanimous court.

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Audio of today’s arguments at CAAF is available at the following links:

United State v. Fetrow, No. 16-0500/AF (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

United States v. Dockery, No. 16-0296/AF (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

CAAF will hear oral argument in the certified Air Force case of United States v. Fetrow, No. 16-0500/AF (CAAFlog case page), on Tuesday, October 25, 2016, at 9:30 a.m. The case presents two issues involving precisely what kind of evidence of child molestation is admissible for propensity purposes under Mil. R. Evid. 414:

I. Whether the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals committed legal error when it found that in order for conduct to constitute child molestation under Mil. R. Evid. 414, the conduct must have been an offense under the UCMJ, or federal or state law, at the time it was committed and, if offered under Mil. R. Evid. 414(d)(2)(a)-(c), that the conduct must meet the definition of an offense listed under the version of the applicable enumerated statute in effect on the day of trial.

II. Whether the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals committed legal error when it found that the erroneous admission of two acts of indecent liberties committed by appellee on his child age daughter had a substantial influence on the members’ verdict requiring set aside of the findings and sentence.

Technical Sergeant (E-5) Fetrow was convicted contrary to his pleas of not guilty, by a general court-martial composed of members with enlisted representation, of seven child molestation offenses. He was sentenced to confinement for 25 years, reduction to E-1, total forfeitures, and a dishonorable discharge.

The charges all involved Fetrow’s two step-children (his wife’s children from a prior marriage). However, the prosecution also introduced evidence of uncharged contact involving Fetrow’s biological daughter under Mil. R. Evid. 414, which – like its federal counterpart, Fed. R. Evid. 414 – permits introduction of similar-crimes evidence in child molestation cases. The rule states:

In a court-martial proceeding in which an accused is charged with an act of child molestation, the military judge may admit evidence that the accused committed any other offense of child molestation. The evidence may be considered on any matter to which it is relevant.

Mil. R. Evid. 414(a). The rule limits the kinds of evidence that may be introduced, however, generally requiring that the evidence implicate a criminal statute prohibiting sexual contact with children. Mil. R. Evid. 414(d)(2) states, in part:

“Child molestation” means an offense punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or a crime under federal law or under state law (as “state” is defined in 18 U.S.C. § 513), that involves:

(A) any conduct prohibited by Article 120 and committed with a child; . . .

Notably, in Executive Order 13,730 of May 20, 2016 (discussed here), the rule was expanded to also include reference to Article 120b – the new child-sex offense law enacted over four years ago. This rule change, however, occurred long after Fetrow’s trial.

The evidence involving Fetrow’s biological daughter alleged that: (1) when she was 3-4 years years old, Fetrow put her in a closet while he had sex with a woman; (2) sometime close to the first event, Fetrow touched her on the leg in a seductive manner; and (3) when she was 8-9 years old Fetrow exposed his genitals to her. Gov’t Br. at 5-6. The military judge admitted this evidence, concluding in part that it was evidence of an offense prohibited under Article 120b, and therefore was admissible under Mil. R. Evid. 414.

The Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals, however, disagreed, and reversed the findings and sentence. United States v. Fetrow, 75 M.J. 574 (A.F. Ct. Crim. App. Jan 21, 2016) (discussed here). The CCA read Mil. R. Evid. 414 as involving a two-part test:

(1) whether the conduct constitutes a punishable offense under the UCMJ, federal law, or state law when the conduct occurred; and

(2) whether the conduct is [at the time of trial] encompassed within one of the specific categories set forth in Mil. R. Evid. 414(d)(2).

75 M.J. at 582-583, slip op. at 13 (paragraphing added). The CCA then concluded that the first and third incidents are not encompassed within the 414(d)(2) categories because Article 120 requires a sexual touching of some kind, and no such touching was alleged. A footnote, however, noted that the then-pending expansion of the rule to include Article 120b could change the analysis.

The Judge Advocate General of the Air Force then certified the case to CAAF.

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On April 29 the Air Force JAG certified Fetrow:

No. 16-0500/AF. U.S. v. Justin L. Fetrow. CCA 38631. Notice is hereby given that a certificate for review of the decision of the United States Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals was filed under Rule 22 on this date on the following issues:

I. WHETHER THE AIR FORCE COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEALS COMMITTED LEGAL ERROR WHEN IT FOUND THAT IN ORDER FOR CONDUCT TO CONSTITUTE CHILD MOLESTATION UNDER MIL. R. EVID. 414, THE CONDUCT MUST HAVE BEEN AN OFFENSE UNDER THE UCMJ, OR FEDERAL OR STATE LAW, AT THE TIME IT WAS COMMITTED AND, IF OFFERED UNDER MIL. R. EVID. 414(d)(2)(A)-(C), THAT THE CONDUCT MUST MEET THE DEFINITION OF AN OFFENSE LISTED UNDER THE VERSION OF THE APPLICABLE ENUMERATED STATUTE IN EFFECT ON THE DAY OF TRIAL.

II. WHETHER THE AIR FORCE COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEALS COMMITTED LEGAL ERROR WHEN IT FOUND THAT THE ERRONEOUS ADMISSION OF TWO ACTS OF INDECENT LIBERTIES COMMITTED BY APPELLEE ON HIS CHILD AGE DAUGHTER HAD A SUBSTANTIAL INFLUENCE ON THE MEMBERS’ VERDICT REQUIRING SET ASIDE OF THE FINDINGS AND SENTENCE.

Appellant will file a brief under Rule 22(b) in support of said certificate on or before the 31st day of May, 2016.

I discussed the Air Force CCA’s opinion in Fetrow here.

Additionally, on May 3 CAAF granted review in three cases:

No. 16-0267/AR. U.S. v. Nathan C. Wilson. CCA 20140135. On consideration of the petition for grant of review of the decision of the United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals, it is ordered that said petition is hereby granted on the following issue personally asserted by appellant:

WHETHER THE MILITARY JUDGE ERRED IN DENYING THE DEFENSE MOTION FOR APPROPRIATE RELIEF UNDER RULE FOR COURT-MARTIAL 917 WHERE THE MILITARY JUDGE IMPROPERLY APPLIED ARTICLE 130, UCMJ, HOUSEBREAKING, TO A MOTOR POOL.

Briefs will be filed under Rule 25.

The Army CCA’s opinion in Wilson is available here.

No. 16-0296/AF. U.S. v. Joseph R. Dockery III. CCA 38624. On consideration of the petition for grant of review of the decision of the United States Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals, it is ordered that said petition is hereby granted on the following issues:

I. WHETHER THE MILITARY JUDGE ERRED BY GRANTING, OVER DEFENSE OBJECTION, THE GOVERNMENT’S CHALLENGE FOR CAUSE AGAINST MSGT LW.

II. WHETHER THE AIR FORCE COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEALS ERRED BY FINDING THAT THE MILITARY JUDGE DID NOT ERR, AND BY CONCLUDING THAT EVEN IF THE MILITARY JUDGE DID ERR THERE WAS NO PREJUDICE, CONTRARY TO THIS COURT’S PRECEDENT IN UNITED STATES v. PETERS, 74 M.J. 31 (C.A.A.F. 2015), UNITED STATES v. WOODS, 74 M.J. 238 (C.A.A.F. 2015),UNITED STATES V. NASH, 71 M.J. 83 (C.A.A.F. 2012), UNITED STATES v. CLAY, 64 M.J. 274 (C.A.A.F. 2007), AND UNITED STATES v. DALE, 42 M.J. 384 (C.A.A.F. 1995).

Briefs will be filed under Rule 25.

The Air Force CCA’s opinion in Dockery is available here.

No. 16-0369/AR. U.S. v. Arturo A. Tafoya. CCA 20140798. On consideration of the petition for grant of review of the decision of the United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals, it is ordered that said petition is hereby granted on the following issue personally asserted by appellant:

WHETHER THE MILITARY JUDGE UNCONSTITUTIONALLY APPLIED MRE 413 BY DETERMINING THAT A FACTFINDER COULD FIND BY A PREPONDERANCE OF THE EVIDENCE THAT APPELLANT COMMITTED EACH OF THE PRIOR ACTS ALLEGED IN THE THREE SPECIFICATIONS.

Briefs will be filed under Rule 25.

No opinion is available on the Army CCA’s website.

The grants in Wilson and Tafoya are the fourth and fifth cases with Grostefon issues granted this term. The first three are United States v. Caldwell, No. 16-0091/AR (CAAFlog case page), United States v. Nieto, No. 16-0301/AR (discussed here), and United States v. Sewell, No. 16-0360/AR (discussed here).

Additionally, CAAF summary reversed the decision of the Army CCA and remanded for additional proceedings in a case involving a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel also asserted personally by the appellant:

No. 16-0433/AR. U.S. v. James E. Hopkins. CCA 20140913. On consideration of the petition for grant of review of the decision of the United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals, it is ordered that said petition is hereby granted on the following personally asserted issue:

WHETHER APPELLANT WAS DENIED EFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL AT TRIAL.

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 that court for further appellate inquiry of the granted issue. The Court of Criminal Appeals will obtain affidavits from civilian and military trial defense counsel that respond to Appellant’s allegation of ineffective assistance of counsel. Under Article 66(c), Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), 10 U.S.C. § 866(c) (2012), the Court of Criminal Appeals shall review the ineffective assistance of counsel issue in light of the affidavits and any other relevant matters. See United States v. Ginn, 47 M.J. 236 (C.A.A.F. 1997). If the court determines that a factfinding hearing is necessary, that court shall order a hearing pursuant to United States v. DuBay, 17 C.M.A. 147, 37 C.M.R. 411 (1967). Once the necessary information is obtained, the court will complete its Article 66(c), UCMJ, review. Thereafter, Article 67, UCMJ, 10 U.S.C. § 867 (2012), shall apply.

Hopkins is the sixth grant of the term of a Grostefon issue. All six are army cases.

In a published decision in United States v. Fetrow, 75 M.J. 574, No. 38631 (A.F. Ct. Crim. App. Jan 21, 2016) (link to slip op.), a three-judge panel of the Air Force CCA interprets Mil. R. Evid. 414 (which permits admission of evidence of uncharged similar crimes in child molestation cases) to find that it was improperly applied by the military judge. As a result, the CCA reverses the appellant’s convictions for sexual assault of his step-daughters, for which he was sentenced to confinement for 25 years, reduction to E-1, total forfeitures, and a dishonorable discharge.

Mil. R. Evid. 414 begins:

(a) Permitted Uses. In a court-martial proceeding in which an accused is charged with an act of child molestation, the military judge may admit evidence that the accused committed any other offense of child molestation. The evidence may be considered on any matter to which it is relevant

The rule also provides a definition of child molestation that includes:

(2) “Child molestation” means an offense punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or a crime under federal law or under state law (as “state” is defined in 18 U.S.C. § 513), that involves:

(A) any conduct prohibited by Article 120 and committed with a child; . . .

Mil. R. Evid. 414(d)(2).

The appellant in Fetrow was accused of sexually assaulting his two stepdaughters. One of the stepdaughters recanted prior to trial, however the appellant was convicted of assaulting both girls based in part upon the testimony of the other stepdaughter. In addition to the testimony of the stepdaughter, the military judge allowed the prosecution to introduce the testimony of the appellant’s 17-year-old biological daughter regarding three unrelated events: (1) when she was 3-4 years years old, the appellant put her in a closet while he had sex with a woman; (2) sometime close to the first event, the appellant touched her on the upper thigh; and (3) a time that she saw the appellant’s penis. Ruling on the admissibility of these three unrelated events, the military judge found that:

there was sufficient evidence for the finder of fact to conclude that Appellant committed the alleged conduct and that such conduct constituted “sexual abuse of a child in violation of Article 120 and 120b” based on the versions of those offenses in effect on the day of trial. The military judge also concluded that the first and third incidents would constitute an indecent exposure under the pre-1 October 2007 version of Article 134, and the second incident would constitute an indecent act with a child under the pre-1 October 2007 version of Article 134. He thus found them all to be similar crimes of child molestation admissible under Mil. R. Evid. 414.

Slip op. at 10. The CCA finds this analysis flawed for two reasons. First, the CCA finds that “the offense of ‘sexual abuse of a child’ is not a violation of Article 120” but rather is a violation of Article 120b which is a separate statute. Slip op. at 11. Second, the CCA find that only Article 120 is incorporated into Mil. R. Evid. 414, while Articles 120a, 120b, and 120c are not. Slip op. at 11. The CCA explains:

To interpret the rule’s reference to Article 120 more broadly than written, so that it also incorporates Article 120a, Article 120b, and Article 120c, would result in a counter-intuitive and an unprecedented expansion of what constitutes “similar crime” evidence in child molestation cases. For example, such a reading would convert a non-sexual stalking offense involving a child under Article 120a into a potential “similar crime” under Mil. R. Evid. 414. If the President’s intent was to significantly expand what types of conduct can be considered for admission for these purposes in the military, or to further differentiate the military rule from the federal rule, one would expect that it would be done explicitly and clearly.

Slip op. at 12. Applying this to the facts of the case, the CCA finds that only the second incident was admissible under Mil. R. Evid. 414, concluding that it could constitute abusive sexual contact in violation of Article 120(d). Further, the CCA finds that the improper admission of the other two incidents was prejudicial in part due to the emphasis placed on them by the trial counsel:

In the prosecution’s opening statement, trial counsel highlighted Appellant’s two purported indecent exposures to his biological daughter to apparently suggest that Appellant’s desires and criminal misdeeds pre-dated the allegations in this trial. In fact, approximately a quarter of trial counsel’s opening statement was devoted to the uncharged conduct involving Appellant’s biological daughter. In addition, during closing argument, trial counsel began their argument with the Mil. R. Evid. 414 incidents and argued that these types of incidents progressed to the allegations involving JB and JH. This propensity evidence was clearly a critical piece of the Government’s case.

Slip op. at. 15. The CCA authorizes a rehearing.