CAAFlog » October 2017 Term » United States v. Barker

CAAF decided the Air Force case of United States v. Barker, 77 M.J. 377, No. 17-0551/AF (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Monday, May 21, 2018. Reviewing a written statement from a child pornography victim that was admitted during the sentencing phase of a court-martial under Rule for Courts-Martial 1101A – the President’s implementation of the Article 6b right of an alleged victim to be reasonably heard – CAAF concludes that the statement was not admissible under that rule because the victim did not actually participate in the proceeding (and perhaps didn’t even know about the appellant’s prosecution). Nevertheless, the court concludes that the erroneous admission of the statement was harmless because the appellant pleaded guilty and was sentenced by a military judge alone, the defense sentencing case was weak, and the prosecution’s sentencing case was otherwise strong. Accordingly CAAF affirms the findings, sentence, and decision of the Air Force CCA.

Judge Ryan writes for the court joined by all but Chief Judge Stucky, who dissents (because he would find the issue waived by the pretrial agreement).

Airman First Class (E-3) Barker pleaded guilty, pursuant to a pretrial agreement, to possession and viewing child pornography. A general court-martial composed of a military judge alone sentenced Barker to confinement for 30 months, reduction to E-1, total forfeitures, and a bad-conduct discharge.

During the sentencing phase of the court-martial the prosecution offered an exhibit consisting of three victim-impact letters dated December 2011, January 2013, and September 2013. All of the letters pre-dated Barker’s offenses. The defense made numerous objections to admission of the letters, but the military judge admitted the exhibit in its entirety.

On appeal, the Air Force CCA considered the letters under two different rules: R.C.M. 1001(b)(4), which allows the prosecution to present evidence in aggravation, and R.C.M. 1001A, which implements a crime victim’s Article 6b(a)(4)(B) “right to be reasonably heard at . . . [a] sentencing hearing relating to the offense.” The CCA found (in a published decision analyzed here) that “[w]hile the Prosecution did not indicate whether they were offering the statements under R.C.M. 1001(b)(4) or R.C.M. 1001A(e), both the trial defense counsel and the military judge treated the Prosecution’s offer as a victim exercising her right to be reasonably heard under R.C.M. 1001A.” United States v. Barker, 76 M.J. 748, 754 (A.F. Ct. Crim. App. 2017). The CCA then found that the December and September statements “lacked any evidence that would have permitted the military judge to determine that they were authentic and, if authentic, relevant to Appellant’s court-martial.” 76 M.J. at 756. The January statement, however, “indicated that it was written by the victim of the ‘Vicky series’ child pornography, one video of which Appellant downloaded.” Id. at 756. Accordingly, the CCA found that the January statement was admissible under R.C.M. 1001A, but the December and September statements were not. Nevertheless, the CCA concluded that the improperly-admitted statements were harmless because “all three statements were from the same victim.” Id. at 757.

CAAF then granted review of two issues challenging the CCA’s conclusion that the January statement was admissible and the improper consideration of the other statements was harmless:

I. Whether the Court of Criminal Appeals erred when it held proper foundation had been laid to admit evidence in aggravation.

II. Whether the Court of Criminal Appeals improperly conducted a review of the prejudice resulting from the military judge’s erroneous admission of evidence in aggravation.

Writing for the majority, Judge Ryan concludes that the January statement was not admissible as a statement of a crime victim under R.C.M. 1001A (and does not address whether it might have been admissible as evidence in aggravation under R.C.M. 1001(b)(4) because that issue was not before the court). But the majority concludes that the erroneous admission of the statement was harmless.

Chief Judge Stucky dissents – even though he agrees with the majority’s conclusions that the statement was improperly admitted under R.C.M. 1001A but was harmless – because he finds that a term of the pretrial agreement served to waive this issue and precludes Barker from raising it on appeal. Accordingly, Chief Judge Stucky would would vacate the grant of review as being improvidently granted.

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

United States v. Barker, No. 17-0551/AF (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

United States v. Hardy, No. 17-0553/AF (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

CAAF will hear oral argument in the Air Force case of United States v. Barker, No. 17-0551/AF (CAAFlog case page), on Tuesday, February 27, 2018, at 9:30 a.m. Two granted issues question the Air Force CCA’s finding of error in the admission of two out of three victim-impact statements offered by the prosecution, but no prejudice to the appellant’s rights:

I. Whether the Court of Criminal Appeals erred when it held proper foundation had been laid to admit evidence in aggravation.

II. Whether the Court of Criminal Appeals improperly conducted a review of the prejudice resulting from the military judge’s erroneous admission of evidence in aggravation.

Airman First Class (E-3) Barker pleaded guilty to possession and viewing child pornography. He was not, however, charged with or convicted of any offense related to production or distribution of such materials; a point repeatedly emphasized in his brief. A general court-martial composed of a military judge alone sentenced Barker to confinement for 30 months, reduction to E-1, total forfeitures, and a bad-conduct discharge.

During the sentencing phase of the court-martial the prosecution offered an exhibit consisting of three victim-impact letters dated December 2011, January 2013, and September 2013. All of the letters pre-dated Barker’s offenses. The defense made numerous objections to admission of the letters, but the military judge admitted the exhibit.

On appeal, the Air Force CCA considered the letters under two different rules applicable to such matters: R.C.M. 1001(b)(4), which allows the prosecution to present evidence in aggravation, and R.C.M. 1001A, which implements a crime victim’s Article 6b(a)(4)(B) “right to be reasonably heard at . . . [a] sentencing hearing relating to the offense.” The CCA found (in a published decision analyzed here) that “[w]hile the Prosecution did not indicate whether they were offering the statements under R.C.M. 1001(b)(4) or R.C.M. 1001A(e), both the trial defense counsel and the military judge treated the Prosecution’s offer as a victim exercising her right to be reasonably heard under R.C.M. 1001A.” United States v. Barker, 76 M.J. 748, 754 (A.F. Ct. Crim. App. 2017). The CCA then found that the December and September statements “lacked any evidence that would have permitted the military judge to determine that they were authentic and, if authentic, relevant to Appellant’s court-martial.” 76 M.J. at 756. The January statement, however, “indicated that it was written by the victim of the ‘Vicky series’ child pornography, one video of which Appellant downloaded.” Id. at 756. Accordingly, the CCA found that the January statement was admissible under R.C.M. 1001A, but the December and September statements were not. The CCA then found that the improperly-admitted statements were harmless because “all three statements were from the same victim.” Id. at 757.

CAAF’s review focuses on the January statement that the CCA found admissible.

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Rule for Courts-Martial 1001A addresses victim-impact statements, which are sworn or unsworn statements given by a victim during the sentencing phase of a court-martial. Upon a showing of good cause the statement may be given by counsel for the victim. R.C.M. 1001A(e)(2).

In United States v. Barker, 76 M.J. 748, No. 39086 (A.F. Ct. Crim. App. Jul. 7, 2017) (link to slip op.), a three-judge panel of the Air Force CCA finds that a military judge improperly admitted two unsworn written victim-impact statements during sentencing because:

None of the unsworn statements are self-authenticating and the Prosecution offered no evidence, other than the redacted statements them-selves (with their redacted titles), to establish that the statements are relevant to Appellant’s court-martial, to authenticate them as letters written by one of his victims, or to indicate that the victims desired to exercise their right to be reasonably heard at Appellant’s sentencing hearing through the statements.

Slip op. at 9.

The statements were allegedly written by people who were depicted in the images of child pornography that the appellant pleaded guilty to possessing and viewing, and the CCA acknowledges that “the Supreme Court has recognized that child pornography is a continuing crime and a child depicted in the images is victimized each time the images are downloaded and viewed.” Slip op. at 6 (citing Paroline v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 1710, 1716–17 (2014)). The CCA also acknowledges that:

Victim impact evidence is a form of aggravation evidence that, with a proper foundation, the Prosecution may introduce during a sentencing hearing under R.C.M. 1001(b)(4). Victim impact is also an appropriate topic for a sworn or (in the case of non-capital cases) unsworn statement offered by a victim in exercising his or her right to be reasonably heard during a sentencing hearing under R.C.M. 1001A(c).

Slip op. at 7-8. Nevertheless:

The Prosecution did not attempt to lay the necessary foundation for admission of hearsay victim impact statements under R.C.M. 1001(b)(4) and it appears that, sub silentio, the Prosecution was offering the statements under R.C.M. 1001A. An obvious and necessary foundational predicate for a statement offered under R.C.M. 1001A is that the victim (not just the Prosecution) wishes the court to consider the statement.

Slip op. 8. The CCA also addresses the rather-unique fact that the statements were written before the appellant’s crimes:

[T]he fact that a victim impact statement was authored before an accused’s criminal acts does not necessarily make the statement irrelevant to the accused’s offenses. However, there must be some evidence establishing a foundational nexus between the victim impact described in the statement and the subsequent offenses committed by the accused. The evidence must establish that the accused’s offenses impacted the victim at some point in the manner described in the statement, whether or not the victim continues to be impacted to the same degree, or even it all, by the time of trial. The fact that the victim may be suffering a lesser impact at the time of trial does not necessarily make the statement stale, but it may be a matter in mitigation. However, in conducting the required Mil. R. Evid. 403 balancing test, the military judge should consider the length of time since the statement was authored and the degree of lessened victim impact (if any) by the time of trial to ensure that the probative value of a statement prepared in advance of the trial is not substantially outweighed by a danger of unfair prejudice, misleading the sentencing authority, or any of the other listed factors.

Slip op. at 8.

The CCA finds the improper admission of two statements to be harmless.