Our number three military justice story of the year features, appropriately enough, a trio of cases. 

In 2008, NMCCA reversed one of two premeditated murder convictions and the death sentence in the case of United States v. LCpl Wade Walker, 66 M.J. 721 (N-M. Ct. Crim. App. 2008).  That case was retried this year, ending in a sentence of confinement for life.

In 2006, CAAF affirmed the portion of NMCCA’s opinion in United States v. Quintanilla setting aside the death sentence in that case.  United States v. Sgt Jessie Quintanilla, 63 M.J. 29 (C.A.A.F. 2006).  The convening authority agreed to a non-capital disposition of the case this year.

And in 1998, CAAF set aside the death sentence in United States v. SGT James T. Murphy, 50 M.J. 4 (C.A.A.F. 1998).  The convening authority agreed to a non-capital disposition of the case this year.

Eight of the 13 approved death sentences imposed under the current military death penalty system have been reversed on appeal.  (Three remain pending at the first level of appeal; the CA hasn’t yet acted in Hennis.)  And now in all eight of those cases, the original death sentence has been replaced by a sentence including confinement for life.

[Familiar disclosure — a bunch of the contributors to this blog, including me, took part in the Walker and Quintanilla appeals.]

One of the main lessons I draw from these cases is that great lawyering matters.  I followed the Walker retrial closely, though unfortunately I was actually in the courtroom for only half a day.  I have no doubt that but for the incredible job that LCpl Walker’s defense team did, he would have been resentenced to death.  There were three particular points in the trial — voir dire and challenges being one of them, one involving the admissibility of a particularly damaging piece of sentencing evidence, and the third involving an instruction issue — when the ultimate outcome likely would have been different but for the performance of LCpl Walker’s counsel.  The team that represented him consisted of LtCol (soon to be Col) John Baker, who was the Marine Corps’ East Coast Regional Defense Counsel at the time and who is now the Chief Defense Counsel of the Marine Corps; our CAAFlog colleague CDR Jason “Super” Grover, who had previous capital experience in the appellate arena; and Capt Kelly Repair. 

Continuing with the great lawyering matters theme, almost certainly the most experienced capital litigator in the Department of Defense is Navy CAPT Henry Lazarro.  He has been on both sides of capital cases at the trial level, has capital appellate experience, and ran the Navy’s capital litigation resource center.  He is THE military capital guru.  And he’s been involved with the Quintanilla case for about a decade now.  He worked every possible angle for his client.  When doors were repeatedly shut in his face, he found other doors.  And finally this year, he and his team of LCDR Stephen Reyes and Capt Suzanne Dempsey accomplished their mission by obtaining the convening authority’s agreement to send the case to a non-capital sentence rehearing.  Great lawyering prevailed for the client.

Army LTC Jim Varley was the great lawyer who represented SGT Murphy on the remand of his capital case.  This year’s agreement with the convening authority to proceed with a non-capital sentence hearing was the culmination of LTC Varley’s eight years of work on the case.

Another lesson these cases teach is the importance of continuity of counsel.  CAPT Lazarro worked the Quintanilla case for about 10 years; LTC Varley worked the Murphy case for eight years, and CDR Grover worked the Walker case for more than six years. 

Regardless of how one feels about the death penalty or the results of any of those particular cases, I’m sure we all appreciate that the military mission and professional duty of the defense counsel assigned to those three cases was to obtain the results they did.  They performed that military mission brilliantly and successfully.  For providing such outstanding examples of the craft of lawyer, the three life sentences adjudged this year in three remanded capital cases is our number 3 military justice story of the year.

17 Responses to “Top 10 military justice stories of 2010–#3: Three life sentences in three remanded capital cases”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Can you talk more about the importance of capital voir dire?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Awesome story…so happy three convicted murderers can live out their days in prison. And all due to great lawyering…thanks for pointing out that voir dire and objections are important for sentencing. I would have never guessed…

  3. Barrister1966 says:

    ANON: Well, apparently government hacks and many appellate judges need more reminding about voir dire and objections in capital cases! Thanks to all those Defending Those Who Defend America!!!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Before starting active duty, I worked in the special appeals unit of an attorney general’s office handling capital appellate litigation. At the time, the state had exonerated more death row inmates than it had executed in the 25-odd years since the punishment was declared constitutional again in 1976. Ultimately, the governor granted clemency to all inmates on death row at the time, but not until after hearings had been conducted. Those hearings required notice to families of victims, to say nothing of the time and effort of counsel and the media circus which ensued. Some of those cases had been aging for 15 years or more. Leaving aside whether that exercise of executive clemency was a good or bad decision (or even lawful, for that matter), the process generated pain for all involved-especially the families of the victims.

    Military death penalty litigation is headed down the same road-we can’t maintain the results we obtain at trial, and victims’ families pay the price even as the government often chooses not to. This is not to say that those families are further injured only by a “lesser” punishment, though many feel injured in this very way. They are, however, most certainly injured by new trials, sentencing hearings, and even contact with counsel. Those families often most closely identify with government counsel who (not unlike their defense counterparts) try the case, argue the case, and live the case for months and even years.

    One wonders, then, why this thread refers only to the efforts of defense counsel. In my view the reversal of a sentence doesn’t necessarily indicate that there was bad lawyering on the part of the government. To the contrary, it could as lief mean instability or lack of clarity in appellate precedent, or trial defense incapabilities. Reversal *definitely* doesn’t mean that government counsel are less committed to their cases, or that their efforts are the children of a lesser Themis than those of the defense bar.

    In any case, the efforts of government attorneys, the duration of delay, and the effect of that delay of justice for victims’ families deserve better mention and more thorough discussion than they’re given here. I expect more from this blog.

  5. Robert Shaines says:

    All of these cases are a great departure from the Schreiber case, where command influence pervaded every facet of the case and defense counsel were given a day and a half to prepare the defense of a potential death penalty case. The only saving grace for Schreiber was the fact that he was an exceptional college athelete and the Chicago press corps turned out in force to cover his trial in Tague Korea, in 1953.Read my book “Command Influence” available on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com

  6. Colonel Jessup says:

    Would you like some eggs with that spam, Bob?

  7. el cravat loco says:

    ML, see RS above?

  8. Anon says:

    Anon @ 209. Great comment. Though you must be pretty new to Caaflog bc it is a pretty defense heavy site where TC are roundly criticized for anything and the defense can do little, if anything, wrong. My opinion, for what it is worth, is a lot of attorneys lose sight of victims in cases.

  9. Anonymous says:

    One wonders, then, why this thread refers only to the efforts of defense counsel.

    It’s pretty clear why, because generally, when a military death penalty case makes it to trial, the death penalty is almost always adjudged by a panel.

    So to get a life sentence is both rare and something worthy of note on the part of the defense counsel.

    I mean what do you guys want, an acknowledgment that the trial counsel failed? That would be decried as anti-TC bias but the same people whining about it inexplicably here.

    Heck, it’s nice to see one place in the military system where there ISN’T a preference towards the government side, so quit your whining government hacks.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Slight laughter at the indignation of the (Rodney Dangerfield) government: “We don’t get no respect!”

  11. Anonymous says:

    Slight laughter at the indignation of the (Rodney Dangerfield) government: “We don’t get no respect!”

    That wasn’t the point-at least not the whole point. As you may note from the post, the point was that there is more to these cases than back-slapping the defense bar (who did a fantastic job for their clients and those courts, no doubt).

    Not new to CAAFlog, and spent more time in defense than trial. That said, response to your quaint application of the ad hominem fallacy is not really necessary because your implied characterization of my post as government-oriented is incorrect and irrelevant. You do not address the substance of the argument, which is that the original post is an incomplete rendition of what makes the three remands and their results remarkable-not just that they were successful in obtaining lesser sentences, but that there is a bigger tale to be told.

    Much like other areas of military justice, there are corollaries between these happenings and similar trends in civilian courts-trends from which we could learn much, to the great benefit of our clients, the process and the people involved in it. Then again, if you want to dismiss the whole thing as ‘TC this’ or ‘DC that’, fire away. Myopic and sad, IMHO, but it’s your internet too.

    I get that CAAFlog is defense-oriented (or at least appears that way to some observers, though the Lakin coverage and Mr. Sullivan’s references to TC’s arguments in that case as “masterful” might indicate otherwise). However, it’s a military justice blog, not the defense sharepoint.

  12. Anonymous says:

    That wasn’t the point-at least not the whole point. As you may note from the post, the point was that there is more to these cases than back-slapping the defense bar

    OK, then tell us what backslapping should have occurred for the government in a death penalty retrial that ended in a life sentence?

    Because I don’t think that’s what the government was going for. I mean it would be like a defense hack complaining about the praise for the government’s sentencing argument we saw on here as “masterful.”

    I simply do not understand your criticism of the writeup of a specific result in a specific case that was wholly reflective of the defense side of things. It isn’t as if the government also argued for life.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Let’s not overstate things. Walker had 17 years to build up mitigation in the DB and Quintanilla was twice found incompetent to proceed. The delay game succeeded in both cases. Both are cold-blooded murderers.

  14. Anonymous says:

    of course both are murderers although I think they are both mammals so the cold-blooded part is a bit specious, so what does that have to do with anything?

  15. Anonymous says:

    Anon 1439: It never has anything to do with it for folks like you. And it was not so much great lawyering as it was the two issues I stated at 1346. I’d say Baker and Grover did a great job, but it was just the slow down game with Quintanilla. And a judge for most of the case who had no stomach for the death penalty. If that case went to a panel he would go straight back to death row.

  16. Anonymous says:

    no it never does because “folks like me” recognize that murder results in a dead person pretty much every single time, so unless you are advocating the death penalty for all murders, then the differentiators between death and life tend to be something other than “someone was killed.”

  17. Anonymous says:

    Great posts by Anons 2:09 am and 1:45 pm. Spot on!