Opinion Analysis: A fair panel and the appearance of a fair panel in United States v. Ward, No. 15-0059/NA
CAAF decided the Navy case of United States v. Ward, 74 M.J. 225, No. 15-0059/NA (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Thursday, June 11, 2015. The court holds that even though the convening authority violated Article 25 when he improperly excluded members on the basis of rank, and the Government committed a discovery violation by failing to disclose the exclusionary selection criteria to the defense (both violations being the law of the case as they were found by the CCA and not appealed to CAAF), the appellant was not prejudiced because the panel for his court-martial was fair in fact and in appearance. Finding the error harmless, CAAF affirms the decision of the Navy-Marine Corps CCA and the appellant’s convictions.
Judge Erdmann writes for a unanimous court.
The appellant was an E-2 who was convicted, contrary to his pleas of not guilty, by a general court-martial composed of members with enlisted representation, of fleeing apprehension, rape, and communicating a threat, in violation of Articles 95, 120, and 134. He was sentenced to confinement for 933 days and a dishonorable discharge.
Prior to the appellant’s court-martial, the convening authority (Commander, Naval Air Force Atlantic (COMNAVAIRLANT)) issued an instruction that required subordinate units to nominate personnel to serve on courts-martial, specifically requiring nominations in pay-grades E-7 through O-5. No members detailed to the court-martial were outside the range of E-7 through O-5. Rather, the panel “was comprised of one 0-4, one E-8, and 6 E-7s.” Slip op. at 5.
Congress established the criteria for member selection in Article 25 (10 U.S.C. § 825). Rank is not among those criteria. However, the appellant did not object to the composition of the panel at trial. Rather, after trial, when his defense counsel first learned of the convening authority’s exclusionary instruction, the appellant sought relief from the convening authority. The convening authority denied relief. On appeal, the CCA concluded that the convening authority’s actions did impermissibly exclude members based on their rank, but that this error was harmless. CAAF then granted review of Appellant’s claim that the CCA erred in finding the error harmless, with the following issue:
The convening authority issued an instruction that limited court-martial member nominations to personnel only in the pay grades between E-7 and O-5. The lower court found this systematic exclusion of personnel to be error, but harmless. Should this court set aside appellant’s convictions based on the rationale of United States v. Kirkland due to the unresolved appearance of unfairness?
Notably, the Government did not certify the CCA’s underlying finding of error, and so “the sole issue before [CAAF] is whether the violation of Article 25, UCMJ, as held by the CCA, prejudiced Ward.” Slip op. at 6.