CAAFlog » October 2017 Term » United States v. Riesbeck

CAAF decided the Coast Guard case of United States v. Riesbeck, 77 M.J. 154, No. 17-0208/CG (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Tuesday, January 23, 2018. Finding that gender was improperly used as a criteria for selection of the members of the court-martial, categorizing that as an “obvious error,” labeling the post-trial review of that error up to this point “a stain on the military justice system,” and emphasizing that “the Government, set on arguing that there was no error, hasn’t even claimed to meet its burden to show the error was harmless,” CAAF sets aside the findings and orders the charges dismissed with prejudice.

Judge Ryan writes for a unanimous court.

A general court-martial composed of members with enlisted representation convicted Boatswain’s Mate Second Class (E-5) Riesbeck, contrary to his pleas of not guilty, of making false official statements, forcible rape, and communicating indecent language, in violation of Articles 107, 120, and 134. The panel sentenced Riesbeck to confinement for three months, reduction to E-2, and a bad-conduct discharge.

That panel, however, had remarkable demographics: “the seven-member panel that convicted and sentenced Appellant was composed of five women, four of whom were victim advocates – persons trained to provide support and counseling to victims of rape and sexual assault – and two men.” Slip op. at 1. CAAF granted review of two issues (both specified by the court) regarding that composition:

I. Whether the members of Appellant’s court-martial panel were properly selected.

II. Whether Appellant was deprived of a fair trial, or the appearance of a fair trial, where a majority of the panel members were former victim advocates and the military judge denied a challenge for cause against one of them

Today’s opinion doesn’t address Issue II because in resolving Issue I the court concludes that:

[T]he error in this case is both so obvious and so egregious that it adversely affected not only Appellant’s right to a fair trial by an impartial panel, but also the essential fairness and integrity of the military justice system. We thus decline to authorize a rehearing, and order that the charges and specifications be dismissed with prejudice.

Due to the patent and intolerable efforts to manipulate the member selection process, contra every requirement of the law, the failures of the military judge, the DuBay military judge, and the CGCCA, to investigate, recognize, or ameliorate the clear court stacking in this case, and the actual prejudice to the Appellant of being tried by a panel cherry-picked for the Government, dismissal with prejudice is the only remedy that can eradicate the unlawful command influence and ensure the public perception of fairness in the military justice system.

Slip op. at 18 (marks and citations omitted) (paragraphing added).

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

United States v. Bailey, No. 17-0265/CG (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

United States v. Riesbeck, No. 17-0208/CG (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

CAAF will hear oral argument in the Coast Guard case of United States v. Riesbeck, No. 17-0208/CG (CAAFlog case page), on Wednesday, October 25, 2017, after the argument in Bailey. CAAF specified two issues involving the members of the court-martial:

I. Whether the members of Appellant’s court-martial panel were properly selected.

II. Whether Appellant was deprived of a fair trial, or the appearance of a fair trial, where a majority of the panel members were former victim advocates and the military judge denied a challenge for cause against one of them.

A general court-martial composed of members with enlisted representation convicted Boatswain’s Mate Second Class (E-5) Riesbeck, contrary to his pleas of not guilty, of making false official statements, forcible rape, and communicating indecent language, in violation of Articles 107, 120, and 134. The panel sentenced Riesbeck to confinement for three months, reduction to E-2, and a bad-conduct discharge.

We first discussed this case here, reviewing the Coast Guard CCA’s 2014 decision that found the issue of improper panel selection waived by the failure to make a timely objection. CAAF summarily reversed and remanded for further review (noted here). The CCA then heard oral argument (noted here) and issued a new decision (available here) affirming the findings and sentence.

The court-martial panel was initially composed of ten members, seven of whom were women. This was a disproportionate percentage of women considering the composition of the command. Of those initial ten members, voir dire revealed that five had served as sexual assault victim advocates and two more had training or experience assisting victims of sexual assault. The defense challenged three members; the military judge granted two of those challenges, and the defense used its peremptory challenge on the third (the prosecution made no challenges). Seven members remained after challenges. Five of them were women, all of whom had victim advocate experience.

These facts indicate a problem with the second issue specified by CAAF. R.C.M. 912(f)(4) states that “when a challenge for cause has been denied the successful use of a peremptory challenge by either party, excusing the challenged member from further participation in the court-martial, shall preclude further consideration of the challenge of that excused member upon later review.” The challenged member referenced in Issue II was excused by use of a peremptory challenge.

This rule was promulgated in 2005, before Riesbeck’s case was tried. Under the prior rule any error in the denial of a challenge could be preserved despite use of a peremptory challenge, but the 2005 change specifically eliminated that possibility. See United States v. Harman, 66 M.J. 710, 719 n.2 (A. Ct. Crim. App. 2008) (discussing change). Unfortunately, none of the briefs – nor the CCA’s opinions – address this. Rather, Riesbeck’s brief concludes:

Conclusion

The defense challenge against LCDR KO should have been granted. As one of five victim advocates and a crime victim herself, her presence on the panel would have created an appearance of unfairness. Further, denial of the challenge forced the defense to use its preemptory challenge unnecessarily.

App. Br. at 29. Because this member was excused peremptorily, R.C.M. 912(f)(4) bars further consideration of the challenge.

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On Friday CAAF granted review in a Coast Guard case, specifying two issues for review:

No. 17-0208/CG. U.S. v. John C. Riesbeck. CCA 1374. On consideration of the petition for grant of review of the decision of the United States Coast Guard Court of Criminal Appeals, it is ordered that said petition is hereby granted on the following issues specified by the Court:

I. WHETHER THE MEMBERS OF APPELLANT’S COURT-MARTIAL PANEL WERE PROPERLY SELECTED.

II. WHETHER APPELLANT WAS DEPRIVED OF A FAIR TRIAL, OR THE APPEARANCE OF A FAIR TRIAL, WHERE A MAJORITY OF THE PANEL MEMBERS WERE FORMER VICTIM ADVOCATES AND THE MILITARY JUDGE DENIED A CHALLENGE FOR CAUSE AGAINST ONE OF THEM.

Briefs will be filed under Rule 25.

We first discussed this case here, when Sam reviewed the Coast Guard CCA’s 2014 decision that found that civilian defense counsel waived the issue of improper panel selection by failing to make a timely objection. But CAAF reversed and remanded for further review (noted here). The CCA then heard oral argument (noted here) and issued a new decision (available here) affirming the findings and sentence.

At the heart of the case is the fact that the appellant was convicted of rape – arising from an encounter during a September 2010 port call in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico – by a panel composed of six women and two men. Of those, five of the women had training as a victim advocate or had assisted women who had complained of sexual assault. Nevertheless, in its most recent opinion the CCA concluded that “Appellant has failed to produce sufficient evidence to raise the issue of court stacking.” Slip op. at 9.

Significant military justice event this week: The Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association will host a free webinar on the Bergdahl case on Wednesday, July 13, 2016, from 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. (eastern time). Register here.

This week at SCOTUS: The Solicitor General received an additional extension of time to respond to the cert. petition in Akbar. I’m not aware of any other military justice developments at the Supreme Court, where I’m tracking two cases:

This week at CAAF: CAAF has completed its oral argument calendar for the term. Details about this term’s cases are available on our 2015 Term of Court page.

This week at the ACCA: The Army CCA will hear oral argument in one case this week, on Tuesday, July 12, 2016, at 2 p.m.:

United States v. Bonilla, No. 20131084

Issues:
I. Whether the military judge erred by allowing a damaging hearsay statement into evidence after he already ruled the specific statement inadmissible.
II. Whether the military judge abused his discretion in prohibiting the defense from completing their closing argument.

Note: This argument was rescheduled from June 14.

This week at the AFCCA: The next scheduled oral argument at the Air Force CCA is on August 18, 2016.

This week at the CGCCA: The Coast Guard CCA will hear oral argument in one case this week, on Tuesday, July 12, 2016, at 10 a.m.:

United States v. Riesbeck

Issue: Whether the panel of members was properly selected.

Note: Our prior discussion of this case is available here and here.

This week at the NMCCA: The Navy-Marine Corps CCA’s website shows no scheduled oral arguments.

Back in September, in this post, Sam analyzed the Coast Guard CCA’s opinion in United States v. Riesbeck, No. 1374 (C.G. Ct. Crim. App. Aug. 5, 2014) (link to slip op.). The CCA affirmed a trial-stage ruling that the appellant’s counsel waived a challenge to the court-martial panel’s composition (the panel appeared to be stacked with female members) by failing to object soon enough. In his analysis, Sam noted that “[RCM] 912(b)(3) provides that the issue is not waived where there is a violation of RCM 502(a)(1).”

On Thursday, December 11, CAAF took the following action in the case that shows that Sam’s analysis was right on:

No. 15-0074/CG. U.S. v. John C. Riesbeck. CCA 1374.  On consideration of Appellant’s petition for grant of review of the decision of the United States Coast Guard Court of Criminal Appeals, we conclude that the issue of improper member selection was not waived because of the exception contained in Rule for Courts-Martial (RCM) 912(b)(3) to the timeliness requirement of RCM912(b)(1). On its face, RCM 912(b)(3) provides an exception to waiver where the objection is made on the basis of an allegation that the convening authority selected members in violation of RCM502(a)(1) for reasons other than those listed in Article 25(d)(2), Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), 10 U.S.C. § 825(d)(2) (2012): age, education, training, experience, length of service, and judicial temperament.  Furthermore, improper member selection can constitute unlawful command influence, an issue that cannot be waived. United States v. Baldwin, 54 M.J. 308, 310 n.2 (C.A.A.F. 2001). Because the exception of RCM 912(b)(3) should have applied, the question remains whether Appellant was deprived of a fair trial by an impartial panel. Accordingly, it is ordered that said petition is hereby granted on the following issue:

WAS APPELLANT DEPRIVED OF A FAIR TRIAL BY AN IMPARTIAL PANEL?

The decision of the United States Coast Guard Court of Criminal Appeals is set aside, and the case is returned to the Judge Advocate General of the Coast Guard for remand to the Court of Criminal Appeals for further review under Article 66(c), UCMJ, 10 U.S.C. § 866(c) (2012). Thereafter, Article 67, UCMJ, 10 U.S.C. § 867 (2012), shall apply.

CAAF also granted review in two Air Force cases last week.

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In its recent opinion United States v. Riesbeck, No. 1374 (CGCCA 5 Aug 2014), the CGCCA finds that an appellant waived a challenge to a “stacked” panel for his general court-martial. The appellant was charged with and convicted of, among other things, a specification of rape in violation of Article 120, UCMJ. The charges stemmed from an incident in September 2010 that occurred during a port call in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

On appeal, the appellant raises several issues including the composition of his court-martial panel. The final panel chosen by the convening authority consisted of seven women and three men, which was actually an increase in women from the six women and four men that had been on a previous version of the convening order. Of these, five individuals had served as or were currently serving as victim advocates, and two others had assisted women who had complained of sexual assault. Two of these individuals, who were trained as victim advocates or had assisted a female sexual assault complainant, were successfully challenged for cause and eventually excused. However, the appellant’s final panel that was seated included five women who had served or were serving as victim advocates or had assisted a woman who had complained of sexual assault.

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