Opinion Analysis: Reversing precedent, CAAF holds that the statute of limitations for rape (prior to amendments enacted in 2006) is five years, in United States v. Mangahas
CAAF decided the interlocutory Air Force case of United States v. Mangahas, __ M.J. __, No. 17-0434/AF (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Tuesday, February 6, 2018. Answering only the issue specified by the court after oral argument, CAAF holds that the offense of rape of an adult (without aggravating factors) is not constitutionally punishable by death, and so the statute of limitations for a court-martial prosecution for that offense (prior to amendments enacted in 2006) is just five years. Accordingly, the decision of the Air Force CCA is reversed and a two-decade old allegation of rape is dismissed.
Judge Ryan writes for a unanimous court.
Mangahas is a lieutenant colonel (O-5) in the Air Force charged with a single specification of rape alleged to have occurred in 1997, when Mangahas was a cadet at the Coast Guard Academy. The alleged victim was a fellow cadet who reported her allegation at the time but did not participate in an investigation. But she made a new report in 2014 (to the Department of Veterans Affairs), a new investigation was initiated, and the charge was preferred in October 2015; eighteen years after the alleged offense.
Mangahas raised numerous objections, including objections based on the statute of limitations and on his due process (Fifth Amendment) right to a speedy trial. The speedy trial motion got traction, and a military judge dismissed the charge with prejudice (meaning Mangahas may never be tried), in part because the passage of time caused the loss of potentially-exculpatory evidence.
But the prosecution appealed, and a three-judge panel of the Air Force CCA reversed the military judge’s dismissal and allowed the trial to proceed. CAAF then ordered a stay of proceedings and granted review of the speedy trial issue:
Whether the lower court erred in finding no due process violation when the Government was inactive for over 17 years before investigating a claim of rape, violating [Appellant’s] Fifth Amendment Right to a Speedy Trial.
CAAF also heard oral argument on the speedy trial issue. But then it specified a wholly different issue for review and ordered additional briefs:
In light of Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584, 598 (1977), and United States v. Hickson, 22 M.J. 146, 154 n.10 (C.M.A. 1986), was the offense of rape of an adult woman, a violation of Article 120, UCMJ, 10 U.S.C. § 920 (Supp. II 1997), a crime punishable by death within the meaning of Article 43, UCMJ, 10 U.S.C. § 843 (1994).
Article 43 of the UCMJ – like federal civil law – contains a baseline five year statute of limitations. Congress amended Article 43 in 1986 to add exceptions, including an exception for “any offense punishable by death.” Pub. L. 99–661, §805(a). At that time, the UCMJ allowed death as the maximum punishment for rape of a female (the offense wasn’t made gender neutral until 1992), and the prosecution of Mangahas depended on application of that capital exception.
Nine years before Congress added the capital exception to Article 43, however, the Supreme Court held that death is an unconstitutional punishment for the offense of rape of an adult woman in Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584, 598 (1977). CAAF acknowledged that limitation in United States v. Hickson, 22 M.J. 146, 154 n.10 (C.M.A. 1986), remarking that “in the absence of aggravating circumstances, [a death sentence] cannot be constitutionally inflicted [for rape of an adult].” Nevertheless, in Willenbring v. Neurauter, 48 M.J. 152, 180 (C.A.A.F. 1998), CAAF held that “rape is an ‘offense punishable by death’ for purposes of exempting it from the 5-year statute of limitations of Article 43(b)(1),” regardless of whether there were aggravating factors that would make death a constitutionally-permissible punishment.
Now CAAF reverses Willenbring and its progeny, concluding that “where the death penalty could never be imposed for the offense charged, the offense is not punishable by death for purposes of Article 43, UCMJ.” Slip op. at 8 (emphases in original).