Opinion Analysis: Rejecting a CCA’s claim of an exception to Hills, CAAF expresses concern about application of its precedent, in United States v. Williams
CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Williams, 77 M.J. 459, No. 17-0285/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Wednesday, June 27, 2018. In this Hills trailer case involving the improper use of charged offenses for propensity purposes, CAAF holds that the Army CCA wrongly held that the circumstances involve an exception to Hills. The court reverses convictions of rape and forcible sodomy, affirms other convictions, and authorizes a rehearing.
Chief Judge Stucky writes for a unanimous court.
In 2013, Sergeant (E-5) Williams was convicted of raping his first wife (Charge I), and forcibly sodomizing and battering his second wife (Charges II and III), by a general court-martial composed of members with enlisted representation. Before trial, the prosecution gave notice of its intent to use the charged sexual offenses against each wife as evidence of Williams’ propensity to commit the charged offenses against the other wife; a tactic that was somewhat common in military practice at the time but that CAAF later held to be improper, in United States v. Hills, 75 M.J. 350 (C.A.A.F. Jun. 27, 2016) (CAAFlog case page).
Williams’ defense counsel filed a motion to preclude the prosecution from using the charged offenses for propensity purposes. “[T]he military judge questioned the ripeness of the issue, signaled that the proper time to address the issue would be when discussing panel instructions, and did not then explicitly rule on the motion.” Slip op. at 4. At trial, however, the defense did not renew its objection, and a different military judge instructed the panel that it could use the charged rapes (Charge I) as evidence of Williams’ propensity to commit the charged forcible sodomy (Charge II), and also that:
You may also consider the evidence of such other acts of sexual assaults for its tendency, if any, to show the accused’s propensity or predisposition to engage in sexual assault.
Slip op. at 5 (quoting record). Williams was convicted. On appeal the Army CCA affirmed the convictions, concluding that “this case is an exception to Hills.” United States v. Williams, No. 20130582, slip op. at 2 (A. Ct. Crim. App. Jan 12, 2017) (link to slip op.). The CCA reasoned:
Charge I is entirely unaffected by Hills. When deliberating on evidence with regards to the Specification of Charge I, the panel was not allowed to consider propensity. Additionally, with regards to the forcible sodomy specifications contained in Charge II, the only propensity evidence the panel was allowed to consider stemmed from a specification that had been independently proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
CCA op. at 2 (emphasis in original). Put differently, the CCA concluded that the propensity instruction only allowed the members to use Charge I to prove Charge II, and since Williams was convicted of Charge I first, the facts of that charge were properly used to prove Charge II.
CAAF wholly rejects the CCA’s reasoning in yesterday’s opinion, with Chief Judge Stucky expressing concern that “this is the third case in which we have had to correct a Court of Criminal Appeals’ judgment on this issue,” slip op. at 1-2, and that “in the wake of Hills, our lower courts have attempted to impermissibly narrow that holding by carving out exceptions that run contrary to an accused’s presumption of innocence,” slip op. at 6.