Opinion Analysis: Denying an accused the right to challenge evidence requested by members offends constitutional rights in United States v. Bess, No. 15-0372/NA
CAAF decided the Navy case of United States v. Bess, 75 M.J. 70, No. 15-0372/NA (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Wednesday, January 6, 2016. The court finds that the military judge abused his discretion when he provided additional evidence to the members during deliberations without allowing the appellant an opportunity to challenge the reliability of that evidence. The court reverses the appellant’s convictions of attempting to commit indecent acts and committing indecent acts, and the decision of the Navy-Marine Corps CCA, and authorizes a rehearing.
Judge Stucky writes for a unanimous court.
CAAF specified the following issue for review in this case:
Whether the military judge abused his discretion when he allowed the admission of additional evidence during deliberations but also denied appellant the opportunity to attack the accuracy of that evidence before the factfinder.
The appellant was tried by a general court-martial composed of members with enlisted representation. He was convicted contrary to his pleas of not guilty of two specifications of attempting to commit an indecent act and four specifications of committing indecent acts, in violation of Articles 80 and 120. The members sentenced the appellant to confinement for two years and a dishonorable discharge.
The appellant was a Navy x-ray technician and the alleged indecent acts involved instructing female patients to be completely naked for x-ray examinations. The appellant was tried on various charges (including allegations of physical contact) involving seven alleged victims, and he was convicted of one offense for six of those seven. However, the appellant’s identity as the x-ray technician for the alleged victims was a hotly contested issue in the trial.
After the close of evidence and during deliberations the members asked the military judge for additional evidence including muster reports (attendance records) that could be used to determine whether the appellant was the x-ray technician on duty at the time of each alleged indecent act. Article 46(a) of the UCMJ provides explicit statutory authorization for the court-martial to obtain evidence on its own initiative. Considering the members’ request, the military judge conducted a hearing outside the presence of the members, heard testimony about the muster reports, and concluded that they were admissible as business records. However, the military judge denied a defense request to examine the witnesses before the members or to give additional closing argument, and instead “handed the reports to the panel with no explanation, stating only that they had ‘been admitted into evidence.'” Slip op. at 3. Soon afterward the members returned with their findings.
Judge Stucky finds no fault with the judge’s ruling admitting the muster reports. However, he concludes that “giving controverted evidence to the factfinder with no opportunity for the accused to examine or cross-examine witnesses or in any way to rebut that evidence in front of the members is unprecedented in our legal system, and cannot be reconciled with due process.” Slip op. at 7.