Opinion Analysis: The confession was corroborated, making any other error harmless, in 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.