Number 3 is a tough one for me to write about. In United States v. Akbar, CAAF, by a 3-2 vote, affirmed the death sentence for Sergeant Akbar following his murder of two officers and injuring 14 other servicemembers at the start of the Iraq War.
It’s tough to write about because capital cases are tough. I know, deep insight on our top ten list, right? But seriously, for those who have worked on capital cases, or even potential capital referrals, these cases consume you regardless of what side you are on. And while the government tosses out threats of capital referral and even does refer capital charges from time-to-time, the universe of counsel that have stood in the well before a panel in a capital case is thankfully small.
Col Sullivan described the difficulty of these cases like this once: when you are working on a capital case, it takes over your life. You end up feeling guilty going to the movies on a Saturday afternoon with you kids because you should be working on that motion, interviewing that witness, or preparing that expert.
Like any death-penalty case, this one involved dozens of issues. But the crux of the fight at CAAF was about ineffective assistance of counsel. The majority finds that the trial defense counsel were not ineffective and that their actions were the result of strategic decisions. There were two big decisions that the Court focused on. First, the decision to introduce Appellant’s diary in full to the members, over 300 pages that included plenty of harmful passages. Second, the decision to avoid “opening the door” to damaging cross-examination involving Appellant allegedly stabbing a MP with scissors days before the court-martial began. The defense avoided “opening the door” by not calling certain mitigation witnesses.
Another important issue was the voir dire. The defense employed a “ace of hearts” approach where they attempted to maximize the panel size on the theory that one vote means a life sentence so more members give higher odds of drawing that ace. Appellant ended up with 15 members on his panel.
A majority of the Court affirmed Appellant’s death-sentence. Of course, the President must sign the death-warrant before habeas proceedings can begin so realistically, we may be a decade or more away from any execution. Remember, as Dew Process pointed out, Gray was sentenced in 1988.
The dissent was powerful. Former CJ Baker wrote it, jointed by current CJ Erdmann. In it, he takes the whole system to task. Starting out powerfully, he writes, “Principle is hardest to hold in the face of countervailing virtue. For a judge that moment may arrive when knowing that is just, one must also consider what is fair. This is a case about whether or not the military justice system was fair, not whether it was just.”
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