Articles Posted in Members (Jury) Issues

The Real Cost Of Having Commanders In Charge Of Military Justice

This article has appeared in Task & Purpose as a result of United States v. Woods,  decided by the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces on 18 June 2015.

Incredibly, a senior naval officer was appointed to be the president of a court-martial panel when in a questionnaire prepared when first told she’d be a court-martial member in the future, the member answered thus about the presumption of innocence.

The Coast Guard has an interesting opinion in United States v. Sullivan, on a members panel stacking.

A military accused does not have the same “jury” right as a civilian accused, but he does have the right to a panel (jury) that is fair and impartial.  United States v. Roland, 50 M.J. 66, 68 (1999); United States v. Nash, 71 M.J. 83 (C.A.A.F. 2011).  Oddly, and unlike the civilian case, it is the person who orders the trial who gets to select who will decide the case he has referred to trial.  The commander cannot systematically or for bad motive select a panel likely to be biased in some way toward an accused.  For example, a person who believes that all convicted accused’s must be punitively discharged.  The primary engine for challenging members once appointed is through voir dire, and then showing actual or implied bias.  United States v. Gooch, 69 M.J. 353 (C.A.A.F. 2010).

This is the second Coast Guard panel challenge case in just a short period.  United States v Riesbeck has been examined here, by colleague Sam Adams.  Riesbeck may be viewed as a “normal” issue of panel stacking.  Panel stacking questions often arise with rank or gender of the selected members.  There is the anomalous case of volunteerism in United States v. Dowty, 60 M.J. 163 (C.A.A.F. 2004), [1] which joins Sullivan as being an oddity – serious, but odd.

How many times during a trial do you try to guess what the members are thinking, and what their decision is – I would suggest we do that many times throughout a trial.  We do this because we are responding to a client’s comment about a look, a question, or the demeanor of one or more members. We do this to try and sense how our case is going for tactical reasons.  We do this because we hope to gain some “insight” on the next steps.  A pretty common reason is whether or not we feel the client needs to testify.

Of course we can never know what the members are really thinking.  During the occasional after court talk it becomes clear that what we thought the members were thinking was not what they were thinking, etc., etc., etc.

So, it’s a worthwhile effort in situational awareness to try and monitor the members.  But what happens if their thinking becomes more obvious or blatant – or possibly so.  At times, I have addressed the issue of the members having already decided the case or evidenced a bias because of a question one of them has asked.

The Military Judge’s Benchbook (MJBB) is the bible for how a military judge will instruct the members of your court-martial under the UCMJ.  Your military defense lawyer should be well versed in this book and these instructions.  The military judge will tell the members what elements of the crime must be proved beyond reasonable doubt; she will tell them about how they may consider evidence presented in court; and she will tell them the voting procedures they must follow to ensure a secret written ballot without undue command influence.

Military appellate courts are not enthused with deviations from the MJBB, even though it is quite possible to do that.  Oddly, the military court of criminal appeals allow for minor deviations and don’t actually require exacting compliance with the MJBB.  See for example, United States v. Bigelow, 57 M.J. 64 (C.A.A.F. 2002).  On the other hand the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces {CAAF) has cautioned against significant deviations from the MJBB, unless adequately explained on the record.  United States v. Rush, 54 M.J. 313 (C.A.A.F. 2001).  That’s what happened with the litigation over challenges to Article 120, when a military judge ignored the law and also the MJBB, and advised the members that the accused did not have any burden to prove consent.

It may not matter if the judge does not follow the MJBB when instructing the members.  For example in a recent case the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) decided that the judge had made a mistake in not instructing on a defense, but that the error was harmless.  We don’t need to go too deep into this area of trial practice; this is something your appellate military defense lawyer and trial military defense lawyer should know about and discuss with you.

Direct comments on the exercise of the right to silence are usually quite clear and should draw an immediate objection.   Our friends at federalevidence review have a comment. What isn’t so clear are indirect or implied or subtle comments.   This is a particular bugaboo of my when LE agents and trial counsel stray from the correct path.  This involves judgment and discretion on whether to object.

When does the introduction of evidence constitute an indirect comment on a defendant’s silence, violating the defendant’s Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination? In a tax fraud case, the Seventh Circuit examined evidence how the government focused the the jury on the defendant’s lack of response. Even though the admission of the evidence was a harmless error, the circuit found that questions to the case agent regarding the alleged fraudulent scheme, though “subtle,” were no less in violation of the defendant’s Fifth Amendment rights than more direct comments on a defendant’s silence, in United States v. Phillips, __ F.3d __ (7th Cir. March 14, 2014) (No. 12-2532)

It is coming up on fifty years since the Supreme Court clarified as part of Fifth Amendment jurisprudence that a defendant’s right against self-incrimination is violated by introduction of evidence that only indirectly comments on a defendant’s failure to respond to government charges. See, e.g.Griffin v. California, 380 U.S. 609, 615 (1965) (“We … hold that the Fifth Amendment … forbids either comment by the prosecution on the accused’s silence [at trial] or instructions by the court that such silence is evidence of guilt.”) The normal test of the violation of this requirement is that the evidence would “naturally and necessarily” be construed as a comment on the defendant’s silence. The Seventh Circuit recently examined this exclusion, explaining and describing a standard approach to dealing with evidence that possibly strays into this type of constitutional violation.

Leaks from Members (or sometimes military judges) occasionally give rise to appellate litigation.

Here is an interesting piece on federal evidence review:

Motion for new trial on criminal extortion and bribery case denied, despite juror’s statement to newspaper after the verdict that because the defendants did not testify, the juror reasoned that "[if] they were innocent, they would have testified.’”; since members of the jury did not learn of the defendant’s failure to testify through improper channels, the evidence of their discussions was not admissible under FRE 606(b) as it was not an extrinsic influence, inUnited States v. Kelley, 461 F.3d 817 (6th Cir. Aug. 31, 2006) (Nos. 05-1361, 05-1435)

Federal Evidence Review references:

In conspiracy and arson trial, reversing and remanding when trial court failed "to make adequate inquiries regarding news stories" that appeared during deliberations and their impact on juror’s deliberations; the judge erroneously failed to explore "whether any juror heard any of the information" and its impact on the jury, in United States v. Waters, __ F.3d __ (9th Cir. Sept. 15, 2010) (No. 08-30222)

The Ninth Circuit recently considered the trial court’s responsibilities to make specific inquiry of jurors when "adverse publicity occurs during deliberations" of the jury. The case can help clear up confusion about the role of the trial court, particularly in light of FRE 606(b) limiting inquiry into a verdict.