Opinion Analysis: Dodging a contentious question about Mil. R. Evid. 412, CAAF finds any error harmless in United States v. Robinson (AR)
CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Robinson, 77 M.J. 294, No. 17-0231/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Monday, March 26, 2018. One of two cases by the same name (but with different appellants) decided today, CAAF finds any error harmless and a sexual assault conviction legally sufficient, dodging a contentious debate about the reach of the constitutionally-required exception to Mil. R. Evid. 412 (the military’s rape shield rule). The court unanimously affirms the findings, sentence, and decision of the Army CCA.
Judge Ohlson writes for the court, joined by all but Senior Judge Effron who concurs in part and in the result.
CAAF granted review of two issues and specified a third:
I. Whether the miltiary judge erred by failing to admit constitutionally required evidence under Military Rule of Evidence 412(b)(1)(C).
II. Whether the military judge committed plain error when he failed to instruct the panel on the mens rea required for the specification of Charge 1, which involved an Article 92, UCMJ, violation of Army Regulation 600-20.
Whether the evidence was legally sufficient to establish that Appellant knew or reasonably should have known that SPC VM was too intoxicated to consent to a sexual act.
In 2013 Specialist (E-4) Robinson – who was a Sergeant (E-5) at the time – attended a party at the residence of another specialist. Many were in attendance, including junior enlisted soldiers. Among those in attendance was Specialist (SPC) VM, who “was the only female at the party.” Slip op. at 3.
Much alcohol was consumed, and “SPC VM abruptly left the party after she became uncomfortable with another guest’s behavior and drove back to her barracks.” Slip op. at 3. Robinson later went to SPC VM’s barracks room, having “told his wife that he was leaving home to go check on a ‘drunk Soldier’ in the barracks.” Slip op. at 7. While SPC VM testified to little memory of the events in her barracks room, Robinson and VM both testified at trial that sexual intercourse occurred. Robinson, however, testified that the intercourse was consensual. But the military judge applied Mil. R. Evid. 412 to prohibit Robinson from testifying “that SPC VM had flirted with [him] for several months before [the party].” Slip op. at 4. The military judge “concluded that the evidence of SPC VM’s flirting on the night of the party was admissible, but not the evidence of flirting in the months leading up to the party.” Slip op. at 4.
A general court-martial composed of members with enlisted representation convicted Robinson of violating a lawful general regulation (fraternization) and sexual assault of a person who was incapable of consenting due to impairment by an intoxicant, in violation of Articles 92 and 120. The members sentenced Robinson to reduction to E-1, total forfeitures, and a bad-conduct discharge (and no confinement). The Army CCA affirmed in a summary disposition.
CAAF’s grant of the issue questioning whether the military judge’s Mil. R. Evid. 412 ruling was error got attention, including from the victims-rights advocacy group, Protect Our Defenders (POD) which filed an amicus brief asserting that an alleged victim’s privacy interests can override an accused’s right to present constitutionally-required evidence.
But today’s opinion doesn’t address that contentious issue, nor does it address the mens rea required for fraternization in violation of Army Regulation 600-20. Rather, finding the sexual assault conviction legally sufficient (an unsurprising result considering the high burden for reversal on this basis), a majority of CAAF concludes that any error in the military judge’s Mil. R. Evid. 412 ruling and the instructions on the fraternization offense was harmless because the evidence of guilt is overwhelming.
Only Senior Judge Effron would go further, but not much further. He finds that the “wide range of behavior from mild teasing to sexual innuendo” excluded under Mil. R. Evid. 412 “was, at best, marginally relevant to the charged offenses and relevant defenses.” Con. op. at 5-6. Accordingly, while Senior Judge Effron does not agree that the excluded evidence “was so inconsequential that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt,” con. op. at 4, he nevertheless concludes that Robinson has not shown error in its exclusion.