Opinion Analysis: An error “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,” in 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).