Opinion Analysis: An appearance of unfairness leads to reversal in United States v. Woods, No. 14-0783/NA
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.