Opinion Analysis: A post hoc analysis of a cold record reveals evidence of service discrediting conduct in United States v. Norman, No. 14-0524/MC
CAAF decided the Marine Corps case of United States v. Norman, 74 M.J. 144, No. 14-0524/MC (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Wednesday, April 29, 2015. The court finds that the military judge erred in admitting lay opinion testimony about the service discrediting nature of Appellant’s alleged child endangerment by culpable negligence, but that Appellant’s conviction is nevertheless legally sufficient because of other evidence in the record that may have been considered by the members, even though the trial counsel didn’t argue it. The court affirms the opinion of the Navy-Marine Corps CCA that affirmed the findings and sentence.
Chief Judge Baker writes for a unanimous court.
CAAF granted review of one issue:
Whether the conviction for child endangerment by culpable negligence is legally insufficient when the only testimony offered to prove its service discrediting nature was admitted in error.
Appellant – a sergeant in the Marines – was convicted contrary to his pleas of not guilty, by a general court-martial composed of members with enlisted representation, of a single specification of child endangerment by culpable negligence in violation of Article 134, charged as service discrediting conduct. In the same trial Appellant was acquitted of four specifications of aggravated assault in violation of Article 128, UCMJ, and four additional specifications of child endangerment by design and/or by culpable negligence in violation of Article 134. The members sentenced Appellant to confinement for sixty days, reduction to E-1, and a dishonorable discharge.
The sole conviction for child endangerment related to burns suffered by Appellant’s infant child while Appellant was giving the child a bath. The child suffered second and third-degree burns, and “was treated for fifty days at the Maricopa Burn Center, undergoing seven surgeries to excise his burnt skin and receive skin grafts for his third-degree burns.” Slip op. at 5-6. There were no witnesses to the incident, but Appellant made statements to law enforcement in which he first stated that he ran the water at “full cold,” and then subsequently stated that he “turned the handle of the faucet to approximately the 9:00 position” and left the child in the water for 30-45 seconds. Slip op. at 4-5 (marks omitted). Yet investigation revealed that with the faucet at the 9 o’clock position, the water temperature in Appellant’s bathroom was only 115 degrees Fahrenheit, and an expert testified that at that temperature “clearly exposure is going to need to last much more than ten minutes in order to produce a third-degree burn in an adult.” Slip op. at 20 (marks omitted).
As charged in this case, the offense of child endangerment by culpable negligence has four elements:
- That the accused had a duty for the care of a certain child;
- That the child was under the age of 16 years;
- That the accused endangered the child’s mental or physical health, safety, or welfare through design or culpable negligence; and
- That, under the circumstances, the conduct of the accused was of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces.
Manual for Courts-Martial, United States, pt. IV, ¶ 68a (2012). To prove the element that the conduct was of a servicing discrediting nature, the Government presented the lay testimony of a Marine staff sergeant (and military policeman) to opine on “whether Appellant’s conduct was of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces.” Slip op. at 6. The defense objected to the testimony but the military judge permitted it.
CAAF finds that the military judge abused his discretion in permitting the testimony of the staff sergeant. Nevertheless, CAAF affirms Appellant’s conviction by concluding that “a rational trier of fact could have instead determined that Appellant turned the faucet handle to the hottest setting and then left his child unattended for 30 to 45 seconds.” Slip op. at 22. The court reaches this conclusion despite the fact that “trial counsel made no mention of the terminal element during closing arguments, omitting any mention of [the staff sergeant’s] testimony or any other evidence supporting this element, leaving this Court to evaluate each piece of evidence post hoc, on the basis of a cold record.” Slip op. at 22 n.5.