Opinion Analysis: CCA judges who refused to participate in the first decision were disqualified from participating in the second decision in United States v. Witt, No. 15-0260/AF
CAAF decided the capital Air Force case of United States v. Witt, 75 M.J. 380, No. 15-0260/AF (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Tuesday, July 19, 2016. In a short opinion the court sets aside the second decision of the Air Force CCA (that affirmed the sentence of death) and reinstates the first decision (that reversed the sentence of death), authorizing a sentence rehearing.
Judge Stucky writes for a unanimous court.
In 2005 a general court-martial composed of twelve officer members convicted Senior Airman Witt of the premeditated murder of a fellow Airman and his wife, and also of the attempted murder of another Airman, and sentenced Witt to death. About 18 months later the prosecution team published a detailed first-person account of the trial proceedings in the Air Force JAG Corps magazine, The Reporter (available here).
In 2013 Witt’s death sentence was set aside by the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals sitting en banc (discussed here). The CCA unanimously concluded that Witt’s trial defense team was deficient in failing to investigate three areas relevant for the sentencing portion of the court-martial. But the court split 3-2 on the question of prejudice, narrowly finding that had Witt’s counsel not been deficient then the members might not have adjudged the death sentence. The CCA remanded for a sentence rehearing.
But then the Government sought reconsideration by the CCA, and in a dramatic reversal the court reinstated Witt’s death sentence in a second en banc decision issued in 2014 (discussed here). As it had in the first decision, the CCA again found that Witt’s trial defense counsel were deficient. But on the crucial question of prejudice the court split 4-2 to find that Witt was not prejudiced by his counsel’s errors, and accordingly it approved the adjudged sentence of death. This reversal of fortune was our #7 Military Justice Story of 2014.
Because Witt had an approved sentence of death, CAAF’s review was mandatory (see Article 67(a)(1)), and the court specified two issues that questioned whether the AFCCA could reinstate the capital sentence in the way that it did:
I. Whether a court of criminal appeals sitting en banc can reconsider a previous en banc decision of that court pursuant to statutory authority, applicable precedent, or inherent authority?
II. Whether a decision of a court of criminal appeals sitting en banc can be reconsidered en banc when the composition of the en banc court has changed?
In today’s decision CAAF holds that a CCA does have the authority to reconsider en banc a prior en banc decision, however it finds that three of the AFCCA judges who participated in the reconsideration were disqualified from doing so.