Opinion Analysis: The appellant’s testimony – disbelieved – makes the conviction legally sufficient, in United States v. Nicola
CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Nicola, __ M.J. __, No. 18-0247/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Wednesday, January 9, 2019. Emphasizing that an accused who testifies in his own defense may be disbelieved by the trier of fact (members, in this case), and that such disbelief may form the basis for a conviction, CAAF finds a conviction for indecent viewing legally sufficient and affirms the decision of the Army CCA.
Judge Maggs writes for a unanimous court.
CAAF granted review of a single issue:
Whether the evidence of indecent viewing in violation of Article 120c, UCMJ, was legally sufficient.
The offense of indecent viewing occurs when a person, without legal justification or lawful authorization, “knowingly and wrongfully views the private area of another person, without that other person’s consent and under circumstances in which that other person has a reasonable expectation of privacy.” Article 120c(a). The statute defines private area as the naked or underwear-clad genitalia, anus, buttocks, or female areola or nipple. A conviction is legally sufficient if, considering all of the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, a rational fact-finder could have found all essential elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt.
Staff Sergeant (E-6) Nicola was convicted of violating a general regulation, abusive sexual contact, and indecent viewing, by a general court-martial composed of officer members, and he was sentenced to reduction to E-1 and a bad-conduct discharge. Nicola’s convictions relate to his conduct with a high-intoxicated, junior female soldier, identified in CAAF’s opinion as Corporal AA.
Corporal AA testified during Nicola’s trial, and Nicola testified in his own defense. Their stories conflicted. Corporal AA claimed that Nicola sexually assaulted her in the shower in her barracks room (he was acquitted of an offense related to that alleged sexual assault). Nicola claimed that he only briefly saw Corporal AA in her bra as she undressed herself to get into the shower, and then that he later looked at her in the shower only to check on her welfare. Nicola focused on his version of events to claim that his conviction of indecent viewing is legally insufficient, while the Army Government Appellate Division asserted that Corporal AA’s version of events supports Nicola’s indecent viewing conviction (even though Nicola was acquitted of the related sexual assault allegation) and also that the members were free to disbelieve Nicola’s version of events and conclude that – even if he did not do everything Corporal AA claimed he did – he did more than he admitted to doing.
CAAF agrees with the Government Division, with Judge Maggs explaining that the court “find[s] the evidence legally sufficient to support each of the Government’s theories.” Slip op. at 6. The primary reason for that finding is Nicola’s testimony in his own defense.