CAAFlog » October 2017 Term » United States v. Jones

CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Jones, 78 M.J. 37, No. 17-0608/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.) on Tuesday, July 31, 2018. Applying the old corroboration rule (that was effective prior to this 2016 change), CAAF unanimously finds that sufficient independent evidence was admitted to corroborate a confession to larceny of military property, even after excluding the statement of a co-conspirator that the Army Government Appellate Division conceded was improperly admitted (and used as corroboration at trial). Because the confession was otherwise corroborated, the erroneous admission of the co-conspirator’s statement is harmless and the findings, sentence, and decision of the Army CCA are affirmed.

Judge Maggs writes for a unanimous court.

CAAF granted review of three issues that focused on the admission of the a co-conspirator’s statement:

I. Whether admission of an alleged co-conspirators confession to law enforcement violated M.R.E. 801(d)(2)(E).

II. Whether admission of the same confession violated Appellant’s Sixth Amendment right to confrontation.

III. Whether use of the confession to corroborate otherwise unsupported essential elements in Appellant’s own confession violated M.R.E. 304(g) and United States v. Adams, 74 M.J. 137 (C.A.A.F.).

Chief Warrant Officer (W2) Jones was convicted of two specifications of larceny of military property, by a general court-martial composed of a military judge alone, and was sentenced to confinement for 17 days, a reprimand, and to be dismissed. Jones was acquitted of a single specification of conspiracy to commit the charged larceny offenses.

In late 2013 and early 2014, Jones was a mobilized reservist deployed to Afghanistan where he “served as the officer in charge of his unit’s woodshop.” Slip op. at 3. Jones was convicted stealing tools from the woodshop and mailing them to his home in North Carolina (to use at the high school where he was a teacher in civilian life). Jones confessed those facts to Army investigators. But that confession alone was not enough to convict Jones, because a confession is inadmissible unless it is corroborated by independent evidence. See Mil. R. Evid. 304(c). See also our #10 Military Justice Story of 2015 (Confessions).

There was, however, an accomplice. Master Sergeant Addington participated in the acts, and he also confessed to military investigators. The prosecution offered that confession into evidence as a statement made by a co-conspirator during and in furtherance of the conspiracy. Such statements are not hearsay and are admissible under Mil. R. Evid. 801(d)(2)(E) (and the equivalent Fed. R. Evid. 801(d)(2)(E)). The defense objected but the military judge admitted Addington’s confession (providing ample corroboration for Jones’ confession) and Jones was convicted.

It’s pretty hard to defend the military judge’s decision to admit Addington’s confession to military investigators as a statement by a co-conspirator made during and in furtherance of the conspiracy, because confessing to the conspiracy is a pretty bad way to further it. Nevertheless, the Army court summarily affirmed Jones’ convictions. But after CAAF granted review, the Army Appellate Government Division conceded that the military judge was wrong to admit Addington’s confession. The Government Division maintained, however, that the military judge’s error was harmless because other evidence admitted at trial provided sufficient corroboration for Jones’ confession.

Today CAAF agreed. Writing for the unanimous court, Judge Maggs explains that: “We conclude that the military judge did not err in admitting Appellant’s statement. We further conclude that the military judge improperly admitted MSG Addington’s statement, but we find that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.” Slip op. at 2.

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Audio of last week’s outreach oral arguments is available at the following links:

United States v. Jones, No. 17-0608/AR (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

United States v. Dinger, No. 17-0510/MC (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

CAAF will hear oral argument in the Army case of United States v. Jones, No. 17-0608/AR (CAAFlog case page), on Wednesday, April 4, 2018, at noon. The case will be argued at the School of Law, The University of Texas at Austin. CAAF granted review of three issues involving the admission of a confession of a co-conspirator:

I. Whether admission of an alleged co-conspirators confession to law enforcement violated M.R.E. 801(d)(2)(E).

II. Whether admission of the same confession violated Appellant’s Sixth Amendment right to confrontation.

III. Whether use of the confession to corroborate otherwise unsupported essential elements in Appellant’s own confession violated M.R.E. 304(g) and United States v. Adams, 74 M.J. 137 (C.A.A.F.).

Chief Warrant Officer (W2) Jones was convicted of two specifications of larceny of military property, by a general court-martial composed of a military judge alone, and was sentenced to confinement for 17 days, a reprimand, and to be dismissed. Jones was acquitted of a single specification of conspiracy to commit the charged larceny offenses.

The convictions arose out of Jones’ operation of a unit woodshop during a deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan. The woodshop “met unit needs by completing small carpentry projects, from signage to shelving.” Gov’t Div. Br. at 3-4. It also “created numerous gifts for World War II veterans, gold-star families, foreign dignitaries, and even President Barack Obama.” App. Br. at 3.

But Jones and another Soldier – Master Sergeant (MSG Addington) – used the postal service to mail woodworking tools home, and they were charged with larceny and conspiracy to commit larceny in connection with those mailings. During separate CID interrogations, both Jones and Addington admitted to mailing the tools. During Jones’ court-martial, the prosecution offered Addington’s confession as a statement made by a co-conspirator during and in furtherance of the conspiracy. Such statements are not hearsay and are admissible under Mil. R. Evid. 801(d)(2)(E) (and the equivalent Fed. R. Evid. 801(d)(2)(E)). The defense objected but the military judge admitted Addington’s confession, Jones was convicted, and the Army court summarily affirmed.

Jones’ brief makes the rather-obvious point that “Addington’s confession to law enforcement was neither during nor in furtherance of any purported conspiracy.” App. Br. at 8. The point is so obvious that the Army Government Appellate Division concedes the error:

Regarding Issues Presented I and II, the government concedes that MSG Addington’s statement was improperly admitted under Mil. R. Evid. 801(d)(2)(E) because it was not in furtherance of a conspiracy and, therefore, its admission violated appellant’s Confrontation Clause rights because the statement represented testimonial hearsay. However, both errors were harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

Gov’t Div. Br. at 7. But the Government Division does not concede Issue III (corroboration of Jones’ confession under the old corroboration rule), asserting that:

Even absent MSG Addington’s statement, the government provided sufficient independent evidence to raise an inference of truth for each essential fact stated in appellant’s confession.

Gov’t Div. Br. at 7.

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Yesterday CAAF granted review in this Army case:

No. 17-0608/AR. U.S. v. Randy E. Jones. CCA 20150370. 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 issues:

I. WHETHER ADMISSION OF AN ALLEGED CO-CONSPIRATOR’S CONFESSION TO LAW ENFORCEMENT VIOLATED M.R.E. 801(d)(2)(E).

II. WHETHER ADMISSION OF THE SAME CONFESSION VIOLATED APPELLANT’S SIXTH AMENDMENT RIGHT TO CONFRONTATION.

III. WHETHER USE OF THE CONFESSION TO CORROBORATE OTHERWISE UNSUPPORTED ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS IN APPELLANT’S OWN CONFESSION VIOLATED M.R.E. 304(g) AND UNITED STATES v. ADAMS, 74 M.J. 137 (C.A.A.F. 2015).

Briefs will be filed under Rule 25.

There’s no opinion on the CCA’s website, but between the case number and the citation to Mil. R. Evid. 304(g) (restyled as Mil. R. Evid. 304(c) in 2013), the case clearly involves the old corroboration rule.

Confessions – the least reliable form of proof known to the law – were our #10 Military Justice Story of 2015, after CAAF breathed new life into the corroboration requirement with its decision in United States v. Adams, 74 M.J. 137, 140 (C.A.A.F. 2015) (CAAFlog case page). The Joint Service Committee quickly proposed changing the rule to restore the corroboration requirement to its formerly toothless status, and President Obama promulgated that change just 13 months after CAAF’s decision in Adams.

For comparison, President Obama didn’t promulgate a Part IV of the MCM addressing the 2012 changes to Article 120 until September 16, 2016 – 51 months after the statute’s effective date.

Mil. R. Evid. 801(d)(2)(E) involves statements made by a “co-conspirator during and in furtherance of the conspiracy,” like discussions of the plan, pitches to recruit other conspirators, and confessions to law enforcement.