CAAF decided the Air Force case of United States v. Piolunek, 74 M.J. 107, No.s 14-5006/AF & 14-0283/AF (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Thursday, March 26, 2015. The court sets aside its own recent decision in United States v. Barberi, 71 M.J. 127 (C.A.A.F. 2012) (CAAFlog case page), with the frank acknowledgement of: “We erred.” Slip op. at 4. CAAF draws a line between a case where members might have convicted an appellant on the basis of an unconstitutional statute or legal theory, and one where the conviction involves only a factual deficiency, and the court affirms Appellant’s child pornography convictions and the decision of the Air Force CCA.
Judge Ryan writes for the court joined by all but Judge Erdmann. He writes separately, dissenting in part but concurring in the result.
CAAF considered two issues in this case (one granted, the other certified), though it summarily rejected the certified issue as presenting a question of fact that the court lacks jurisdiction to consider:
Granted Issue: Whether appellant’s convictions for possession and receipt of child pornography on divers occasions must be set aside because several images offered in support of the specifications are not child pornography and are constitutionally protected, a general verdict was entered, and it is impossible to determine whether said images contributed to the verdict.
Certified Issue: Whether the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals erred in finding that images 8308, 8313, and 0870 did not constitute visual depictions of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct as a matter of law.
Appellant was convicted contrary to his pleas of not guilty, by a general court-martial composed of members with enlisted representation, of one specification of wrongful receipt of child pornography, one specification of wrongful possession of child pornography, one specification of enticing a minor child to send sexually explicit images, and one specification of communicating indecent language to a minor, all in violation of Article 134. He was sentenced to reduction to E-1, confinement for 18 months, and a dishonorable discharge.
Appellant’s convictions were related to his online communications with the teenage sister of a friend, during which he received sexually explicit images of the girl when she was 14 and 15 years old. He was charged with receipt and possession of child pornography in connection with those images, the Government admitted 22 images into evidence at trial, and Appellant was convicted. However, on review the Air Force CCA found that three of the 22 images did not meet the definition of child pornography at issue in the case. Specifically, in a published decision, the CCA noted that “while [the girl] is naked in each of the images, none of these three images contain an exhibition of her genitals or pubic area.” United States v. Piolunek, 72 M.J. 830, 838 (A.F. Ct. Crim. App. 2013).
Because it found that the three images did not meet the definition of contraband child pornography, the CCA concluded that Appellant’s possession of them was constitutionally protected conduct and that a conviction that might be based on that conduct is erroneous. But the CCA affirmed Appellant convictions after concluding that it had “no doubt that the 3 images in question did not materially contribute to the finding of guilt because of the evidence relating to the other 19 images.” Id. at 839. This finding of harmlessness seemed to present a direct challenge to CAAF’s decision in Barberi – also a child pornography case – where Judge Erdmann wrote for the majority and explained that:
An error in admitting plainly relevant evidence which possibly influenced the jury adversely to a litigant cannot be conceived of as harmless.
Barberi, 71 M.J. at 132 (marks and citation omitted). Now the lone dissenting voice in Piolunek, Judge Erdmann tries to salvage something of the reasoning from Barberi by highlighting that CAAF “recognized that this type of constitutional error is reviewable for harmlessness.” Piolunek, diss. op. at 9. See also Barberi, 71 M.J. at 132 (rejecting Barberi’s urging “to set aside the verdict without testing for prejudice.”). But Judge Ryan leads the majority in Piolunek to craft a decision that supersedes Barberi in its entirety, holding that the admission of the three factually deficient images was not constitutional error at all.