CAAFlog » September 2014 Term » United States v. Woods

CAAF decided the Navy case of United States v. Woods, 74 M.J. 238, No. 14-0783/NA (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.) on Thursday, June 18, 2105. The court concludes that the military judge erred in denying the appellant’s challenge of a member who initially believed that the military employs a guilty-until-proven-innocent standard. Finding implied bias, CAAF reverses the decision of the NMCCA and the appellant’s conviction.

Chief Judge Baker writes for a nearly-unanimous court. Judge Stucky concurs in the result, but he concludes that the member should have been excused for actual bias, not implied bias.

The appellant was convicted contrary to his pleas of not guilty, by a general court-martial composed of officer members, of one specification of aggravated sexual assault in violation of Article 120, UCMJ (2006). He was sentenced to confinement for five months, total forfeitures, and a dismissal. The NMCCA affirmed the findings and sentence.

CAAF granted review of a single issue:

Whether the military judge erred by denying a challenge for cause against the court-martial president, who said the “guilty until proven innocent” standard is “essential” to the military’s mission.

More than half of Chief Judge Baker’s opinion is dedicated to reproducing portions of the member’s questionnaire, voir dire responses, and the military judge’s rulings on the appellant’s challenge. It begins:

in advance of Appellant’s trial, CAPT Villalobos completed a court-martial member questionnaire. In response to an open-ended question regarding her view of the military justice system, CAPT Villalobos provided the response at issue in this appeal:

[Q.] What is your opinion of the military’s criminal justice system?

[A.] There is not [a] perfect system, and I understand why the enforcement of ‘you are guilty until proven innocent’ (just the opposite as in the civilian sector) is essential because the military needs to be held to a higher standard just for reasons of our mission. It is a voluntary force and you come into the service knowing that you will be held to this higher standard[] and give up your civil rights.

Slip op. at 4 (marks in original). The defense challenge the member but the military judge denied the challenge, ruling in part that:

With respect to Captain Villalobos, I have specifically considered the liberal grant mandate and examined her answers for actual bias as well as implied bias. I am going to focus here for a minute on her answers to the member’s questionnaire pertaining to what the relevant burden of proof is in a court-martial. It’s absolutely the case that she did arrive at this court-martial under a misapprehension of what the burden of proof is at a court-martial. I don’t find that to be disqualifying. I evaluated her demeanor as she answered questions. When I asked her candidly “Did you — were you under the impression that that was the relevant standard in these cases,” and she says “Yes,” and she acknowledged that that was a misapprehension on her part.

Slip op. at 8.

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

United States v. Simmermacher, No. 14-0744/NA (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

United States v. Woods, No. 14-0783/NA (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

CAAF will hear oral argument in the Navy case of United States v. Woods, No. 14-0783/NA (CAAFlog case page), on Wednesday, February 25, 2015. The case presents a single issue that addresses the persistent myth that service members give up their constitutional rights when joining the military:

Whether the military judge erred by denying a challenge for cause against the court-martial president, who said the “guilty until proven innocent” standard is “essential” to the military’s mission.

Appellant was convicted contrary to his pleas of not guilty, by a general court-martial composed of officer members, of one specification of aggravated sexual assault in violation of Article 120, UCMJ (2006). The senior member of the panel that convicted Appellant was a Navy captain (O-6) who provided the following written response in a members questionnaire:

The questionnaire asked, “What is your opinion of the military’s criminal justice system?” CAPT Villalobos answered:

There is not [a] perfect system, and I understand why the enforcement of ‘you are guilty until proven innocent’ (just the opposite as in the civilian sector) is essential because the military needs to be held to a higher standard just for reasons of our mission. It is a voluntary force and you come into the service knowing that you will be held to this higher standards [sic] and give up your civil rights.

App. Br. at 2. See also Gov’t Br. at 2. The Captain was selected for the panel and questioned extensively by both sides during voir dire. Ultimately, the military judge asked the Captain the following series of leading questions:

MJ: Okay. Captain, going back to your answer to question 20, it appears that you, in fact, arrived at this court-martial with an erroneous understanding of the burden of proof in this case.
CAPT MV: Right.

MJ: Is that fair to say?
CAPT MV: Yes.

MJ: Okay. And your answer also tends to indicate that you might think that there would be a good reason for the military to operate under a system like the one that you presumed that we did.
CAPT MV: Um-huh.

MJ: I want to make sure in my own mind and for the record that you understand that the burden of proof in this case is on the government, that it never shifts to the defense.
CAPT MV: Right. I understand that.

MJ: And that the obligation for a conviction in this case is that the government must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. Do you understand that?
CAPT MV: Yes.

MJ: Are you completely comfortable with that?
CAPT MV: Yes.

MJ: You don’t have any reservations in your own mind about following that instruction when I give it to you?
CAPT MV: I don’t have any reservations.

United States v. Woods, No. 201300153, slip op. at 4-5 (N-M. Ct. Crim. App. Jun. 26, 2014) (quoting record at 296-97). The defense challenged the member for cause, the military judge denied the challenge, and the NMCCA affirmed.

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