CAAFlog » September 2014 Term » United States v. Stellato

CAAF decided the interlocutory Army case of United States v. Stellato, 74 M.J. 473, No. 15-0315/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Thursday, August 20, 2015. Finding significant flaws in the way the trial counsel (military prosecutor) handled his discovery obligations, CAAF affirms the pretrial ruling that dismissed with prejudice charges involving alleged sexual assault of a child, concluding that the military judge did not abuse his discretion in finding discovery violations and finding no lesser remedy adequate. CAAF reverses the decision of the Army CCA and reinstates the military judge’s ruling dismissing the case.

Judge Ohlson writes for the court. Judge Stucky writes separately, concurring in the result but disagreeing with the majority’s conclusion regarding one of the numerous discovery issues.

The accused, a mobilized reservist, was charged with various acts of alleged sexual molestation of his biological daughter, Miss. MS, from 2007 through 2009, when the child was between the ages of two and five years old. The asserted discovery violations in the case involve various items, but chief among them is a collection of materials (some of them highly exculpatory) assembled and held by the alleged victim’s mother and referred to as a “box” of evidence. Another item is a plastic banana allegedly used to assault the girl and subsequently held by civilian authorities. Other concerns involve a witness that the Defense sought to interview, and an expert whose testimony would have been favorable to the Defense but who suddenly died during delays incurred by litigation of the discovery issues.

The Defense sought multiple continuances of the trial, asserting outstanding discovery issues. The military judge granted numerous continuances, once “warn[ing] the Government that its decision to ‘take a hard stand on discovery
. . . invited disaster at trial.’ (Ellipsis in original.).” Slip op. at 10 (marks omitted). That disaster eventually arrived for the Government when the Defense moved to dismiss the charges due to prosecutorial misconduct and the military judge found “‘continual and egregious discovery’ violations by CPT Jones,” the trial counsel. Slip op. at 14. Then, “after considering ‘all possible remedies in this case’ and the requirement ‘to craft the least drastic sanction,’ the military judge dismissed the case with prejudice based on ‘the nature, magnitude, and consistency of the discovery violations’ in the case.” Slip op. at 14.

The Government appealed and in a published decision issued last November (discussed here) a three-judge panel of the Army CCA reversed the military judge, finding that the military judge “clearly misjudged the scope and magnitute of the discovery issues in this case.” 74 M.J. 501, 515 (A. Ct. Crim. App. Nov. 17, 2014). CAAF then granted review of two issues:

I. Whether the Army Court of Criminal Appeals erred as a matter of law in concluding there was no discovery violation and reversing the military judge’s remedy of dismissal.

II. Whether the Army Court of Criminal Appeals applied an erroneous view of the law in requiring the military judge to find “willful ignorance, willful suppression, or other misconduct” as a condition precedent for dismissal with prejudice for discovery violations.

Yesterday’s decision reverses the CCA but does so by piercing through the CCA’s decision and “review[ing] the military judge’s rulings directly,” with  CAAF concluding that “the military judge did not abuse his discretion in finding discovery violations and in dismissing this case with prejudice.” Slip op. at 15.

It is, at first glance, the most significant prosecutorial misconduct case decided by CAAF since United States v. Fletcher, 62 M.J. 175 (C.A.A.F. 2005) (finding prejudicial misconduct in the trial counsel’s findings argument). Where Fletcher defined the contours of Government argument, Stellato defines the contours of Government discovery.

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Audio of today’s oral arguments at CAAF is available at the following links:

United States v. Murphy, No. 14-0767/AR (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

United States v. Stellato, No. 15-0315/AR (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

United States v. Schloff, No. 15-0294/AR (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

CAAF will hear oral argument in the interlocutory Army case of United States v. Stellato, No. 15-0315/AR (CAAFlog case page), on Tuesday, April 28, 2015. In a published decision issued in November (discussed here), a three-judge panel of the Army CCA granted a Government interlocutory appeal of a military judge’s order that dismissed a child sexual assault case with prejudice as a remedy for Government discovery violations. The CCA found that “the military judge abused his discretion by dismissing the charges and specifications with prejudice,” and that “he clearly misjudged the scope and magnitude of the discovery issues in this case.” Slip op. at  21. The CCA also found that “the trial counsel disclosed what he knew, as required under R.C.M. 701(a)(6). Brady and R.C.M. 701(a)(6) require due diligence, but we find no support for the proposition that the trial counsel must seek exculpatory evidence outside of the government’s control or possession.” Slip op. at 17.

CAAF subsequently granted the accused’s petition for review of two issues:

I. Whether the Army Court of Criminal Appeals erred as a matter of law in concluding there was no discovery violation and reversing the military judge’s remedy of dismissal.

II. Whether the Army Court of Criminal Appeals applied an erroneous view of the law in requiring the military judge to find “willful ignorance, willful suppression, or other misconduct” as a condition precedent for dismissal with prejudice for discovery violations.

The accused, a mobilized reservist, is charged with various acts of alleged sexual molestation of his biological daughter, MS, from 2007 through 2009, when MS was between the ages of two and five years old. The asserted discovery violations in the case involve various items, but chief among them is a collection of materials assembled and held by a women who is the wife of the accused and the alleged victim’s mother. According to the military judge’s findings (that were adopted by the Army CCA), the materials were:

what witnesses described as a “box” of evidence relating to this case. Mrs. MS [the mother] had compiled this evidence over several years since the allegations were first made and kept it in a large, color-coded binder several inches thick. She kept this binder in a green plastic file box, which she kept on the kitchen table in her home. Mrs. MS and MS [the child] live in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Slip op. at 3. Among those materials was a note documenting a recantation by the alleged victim. Slip op. at 7. The military judge also found that Government counsel became aware of the materials in February or March 2013, when counsel visited the family in West Virginia. But Government agents did not secure the materials. Charges were preferred in March 2013, the accused was arraigned in September 2013, and trial was scheduled. But the defense requested multiple continuances for discovery-related issues. One such request was litigated on March 17, 2014, and was requested for three reasons:

First, the government had informed the defense that Mrs. MS had at least two journals that she kept with details of the case that she was using to prepare for trial that had not been and would not be provided to the defense because Mrs. MS did not bring them to trial but brought only selected scanned pages. Mrs. MS confirmed that no one ever asked her or told her to bring the journals or the “box” or binder of evidence to Fort Bliss.

Second, the government had just provided in the R.C.M. 802 conference, witnessed by the military judge, emails between the accused and Mrs. MS in which the accused made statements directly contradicting the allegations as well as Mrs. MS’s statements that the accused had never denied the allegations. The defense had specifically requested these emails in its initial discovery request on 22 March 2013. Mrs. MS stated that she had previously provided the emails, but later acknowledged that she had inadvertently not provided the emails to the government prior to March 2014.

Third, the government revealed to the defense and the military judge in the R.C.M. 802 conference that there was a “box” of information in the possession of Mrs. MS that had not been provided to the government, let alone disclosed to the defense, and would not be available for trial as it was still in West Virginia. This was the first time the “box” had been disclosed to the defense or the military judge, despite the defense receiving some of its contents in piecemeal discovery after being scanned by a friend of Mrs. MS and forwarded on a thumb drive to the government. The military judge granted the defense’s request for continuance, and the trial was docketed for a fourth time for 8 July 2014.

Slip op. at 7. Ultimately, the materials (or, at least, what was left of them in the spring of 2014) were disclosed to the defense. However, the military judge dismissed the case with prejudice, concluding that because of:

the nature, magnitude, and consistency of the discovery violations in this case, this is the very rare case where dismissal is an appropriate remedy.” Further, due to the “material prejudice and denial of due process already inflicted on the Accused,” to include the delayed disclosure of certain pieces of evidence, the loss of a defense witness due to his untimely demise, and the length of time from preferral to the scheduled court-martial, “the only appropriate remedy left in this case is dismissal with prejudice.”

Gov’t Br. at 14. The Government appealed and the CCA reversed.

The CCA’s opinion found that Government counsel complied with the discovery obligations, finding error in the military judge’s conclusion to the contrary.

We conclude that the military judge relied on an erroneous view of the law. The trial counsel disclosed what he knew, as required under R.C.M. 701(a)(6). Brady and R.C.M. 701(a)(6) require due diligence, but we find no support for the proposition that the trial counsel must seek exculpatory evidence outside of the government’s control or possession.

Slip op. at 17. The court also made a crucial distinction between Government agents and cooperating witnesses:

[T]he record does not reflect, and the military judge did not find, that Mrs. MS or MS were effectively government agents. In our view, nothing in this case gives us reason to merge the prosecuting sovereign United States and a cooperating witness and treat the two as one. Given the facts, MS and Mrs. MS cooperated with the trial counsel, but did not become agents of the trial counsel.

Thus, the “box,” and the evidence within it such as the note documenting the recantation and the emails, were outside the possession and knowledge of the government. The trial counsel did not have a duty to search a “box” belonging to third party cooperating witnesses for exculpatory information. The military judge abused his discretion to the extent that he believed that the trial counsel had such a duty.

Slip op. at 19 (emphases added). Finally, the court found that “without a finding of willful ignorance, willful suppression, or other misconduct from the military judge, we cannot conclude that dismissal with prejudice is a reasonable remedy.” Slip op. at 22.

CAAF’s will now review whether there was a discovery violation and, if so, how severe that violation must be before dismissal with prejudice is an appropriate remedy.

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Yesterday CAAF granted review in two cases; in both the Government prevailed on interlocutory appeals at the Army CCA:

No. 15-0294/AR. U.S. v. Christopher S. Schloff. CCA 20140708.  On consideration of the petition for grant of review of the decision of the United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals on appeal by the United States under Article 62, Uniform Code of Military Justice, 10 U.S.C. § 862, it is ordered that said petition is hereby granted on the following issue:

WHETHER THE ARMY COURT ERRED IN EXPANDING THE DEFINITION OF A “SEXUAL CONTACT” TO A TOUCH ACCOMPLISHED BY AN OBJECT CONTRARY TO THE PLAIN LANGUAGE OF ARTICLE 120(G)(2).

In accordance with Rule 19(a)(7)(A), briefs will not be filed.

I discussed the Army CCA’s opinion in Schloff in a post titled: Can touching with a stethoscope constitute sexual contact?

No. 15-0315/AR. U.S. v. Michael F. Stellato. CCA 20140453.  On consideration of the petition for grant of review of the decision of the United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals on appeal by the United States under Article 62, Uniform Code of Military Justice, 10 U.S.C. § 862, it is ordered that said petition is hereby granted on the following issues:

I.    WHETHER THE ARMY COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEALS ERRED AS A MATTER OF LAW IN CONCLUDING THERE WAS NO DISCOVERY VIOLATION AND REVERSING THE MILITARY JUDGE’S REMEDY OF DISMISSAL.

II.   WHETHER THE ARMY COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEAL APPLIED AN ERRONEOUS VIEW OF THE LAW IN REQUIRING THE MILITARY JUDGE TO FIND “WILLFUL IGNORANCE, WILLFUL SUPPRESSION, OR OTHER MISCONDUCT” AS A CONDITION PRECEDENT FOR DISMISSAL WITH PREJUDICE FOR DISCOVERY VIOLATIONS.

In accordance with Rule 19(a)(7)(A), briefs will not be filed.

I analyzed the Army CCA’s opinion in Stellato in a post titled: The Army CCA finds “no support for the proposition that the trial counsel must seek exculpatory evidence outside of the government’s control or possession.”

In a published opinion in United States v. Stellato, __ M.J. __, No. 20140453 (A. Ct. Crim. App. Nov. 17, 2014) (link to slip op.), a three-judge panel of the Army CCA grants a Government interlocutory appeal of a military judge’s order that dismissed a child sexual assault case with prejudice as a remedy for Government discovery violations. Senior Judge Tozzi writes for the panel.

The opinion contains a lengthy recitation of facts. The case “involves purported discovery violations over the course of several months. The accused, a mobilized reservist, is charged with various acts of molesting his biological daughter, MS, from 2007 through 2009. At that time, MS was between less than three years and less than five years of age.” Slip op. at 2.

I’m going to focus on the discovery issue that I think is the most significant: A dispute over the late disclosure of the existence of a “box” (and the term is used in quotes throughout the opinion) of evidence that was assembled by the alleged victim’s mother, Mrs. MS (notably, the alleged victim and her mother share the same initials – the CCA identifies the alleged victim as “MS” and the mother as “Mrs. MS”):

On approximately 9 February 2013, Mrs. MS, with the assistance of friends, compiled what witnesses described as a “box” of evidence relating to this case. Mrs. MS had compiled this evidence over several years since the allegations were first made and kept it in a large, color-coded binder several inches thick. She kept this binder in a green plastic file box, which she kept on the kitchen table in her home.

Slip op. at 3. The lead trial counsel (the prosecutor), Captain KJ, learned about the “box of evidence” in early 2013. But its existence wasn’t disclosed to the Defense until about a year later, in March 2014. By that time the trial had already been continued twice due to Defense concerns about incomplete discovery, and Captain KJ had been replaced as trial counsel (apparently because he was going to deploy, but the opinion doesn’t make this clear):

[T]he government revealed to the defense and the military judge in the R.C.M. 802 conference that there was a “box” of information in the possession of Mrs. MS that had not been provided to the government, let alone disclosed to the defense, and would not be available for trial as it was still in West Virginia [trial was to occur at Fort Bliss, Texas -zds]. This was the first time the “box” had been disclosed to the defense or the military judge, despite the defense receiving some of its contents in piecemeal discovery after being scanned by a friend of Mrs. MS and forwarded on a thumb drive to the government.

Slip op. at 8. The military judge then granted a third continuance of the trial dates, and the Defense filed “a motion to dismiss with prejudice due to prosecutorial misconduct in the form of repeated discovery violations.” Slip op. at 8. After hearing evidence and argument, the military judge granted the Defense motion, dismissing the charges with prejudice on discovery grounds. The Government appealed, and the CCA reverses, finding that “the military judge based his ruling upon an erroneous view of the law and, accordingly, abused his discretion.” Slip op. at 2.

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