The UCMJ: A Frankensteined Military Justice

Over the past decade, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) has undergone significant change. Driven by headline-grabbing scandals and shifting political winds, Congress has stitched together a Frankensteinian monster of legislation, leaving a system with contradictions, unintended consequences, and a looming shadow over due process.

A History of Frankensteinian Tinkering:

The recent firing of Brigadier General Warren Wells, the Army’s first-ever lead special trial counsel, casts a shadow of doubt over the future of the special trial counsel and the defense counsel in the military justice system. While Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth cited a “loss of trust and confidence” stemming from an old email expressing skepticism about false allegations, the implications for fair trials and due process run deeper. Here’s why the decision raises concerns for the independence of special trial counsel and the integrity of the military justice system:

Chilling Effect on Independent Military Defense:

Wells’ email, albeit controversial, highlighted legitimate concerns about potential false claims and the need for rigorous evaluation beyond accusations alone. He was at the time serving as an Army Regional Defense Counsel (RDC) supervising a group of military defense counsel. If you are facing an Army court-martial, you will meet or have met an Army Trial Defense Service attorney whom an RDC is supervising. The reason for firing Wells sends a chilling message to defense lawyers whose duty it is to challenge the prosecution narrative, scrutinize evidence, and advocate zealously for clients. Secretary Wormuth’s action may create fear and self-censorship, inhibiting defense counsel from fulfilling their ethical duty to their clients and undermining the adversarial process that safeguards justice. Out of self-interest, they might not take legitimate action in their representation for fear that years later, what they said or did may affect their career.

This week we received the decision of the Army Court of Criminal Appeals of a client accused of homosexual sexual assaults.

He had been convicted and sentenced to 14 years of confinement.

We raised many issues during his appeal. The Army Court found a serious error by the military judge in denying the defense presenting evidence of other sexual acts of the alleged victim. This issue usually comes up in a Military Rule of Evidence 412 motion. Here, the military judge botched it.

On December 6, 2023, the Secretary of the Army, Ms. Christine Wormuth, fired Brigadier General (BG) Warren Wells, the Army’s chief prosecutor and head of the Office of the Special Trial Counsel (OSTC), for an email he had sent ten years prior while in a defense counsel role. This firing demonstrates that no military defense counsel can be certain that doing their job and defending you will not come back to haunt them down the road. It will always be in the back of their minds.

In 2013, Warren Wells was a Lieutenant Colonel and a Regional Defense Counsel supervising the Senior Defender Counsel at several Army bases and their subordinate military defense counsel. He sent an email to his Senior Defense Counsel on various defense matters that included a paragraph commenting on the pressure put on the Army by Congress and the media to send sexual assault cases to trial and then stated that they, as defense counsel were the last line of defense for the innocent. Ten years later, when Ms. Wormuth read the email, she found this sentiment so outrageous that she fired BG Wells within hours!

Today, every military defense counsel knows (especially in the Army) that something they do or say in your defense can be held against them in the years to come when they are up for promotion or in a different position as a JAG. The military branches try to have independent defense counsel while they are in defense counsel positions, but as the BG Wells story illustrates: nothing protects them when they are no longer in a defense counsel position. Your military defense counsel will hopefully do their best to represent you anyway, but he or she is not conflict-free, no matter how hard they try.

The Secretary of the Navy has issued a significant change to Article 15/NJP procedures for service personnel assigned to or embarked on a vessel.

The Navy’s vessel exception is part of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) that allows the Navy to deny service members the right to demand a court-martial instead of nonjudicial punishment (NJP) if they are “attached to or embarked in a vessel.” This exception was created in 1962 to give the Navy more flexibility in disciplining sailors at sea, where conducting a court-martial can be logistically challenging and time-consuming.

The vessel exception has been controversial since its inception, many of us as military defense counsel have been critical of it, arguing that it strips sailors of their due process rights. In recent years, there have been calls to repeal the exception, and in 2023, the Navy announced that it would be expanding the circumstances in which sailors can refuse NJP. That change is here and your military defense lawyer can help you understand the change and how you might benefit from it.

Generally

When deciding what a word or term in a statute means, the rule of statutory interpretation is to give the word or term its plain and ordinary meaning. This is known as the plain meaning rule. If the word or term is clear and unambiguous, then the court will not look beyond the text of the statute to determine its meaning. The principal rule is well known to military defense counsel as they prepare a case for trial.

If a word or term is ambiguous, then the court may use other tools of statutory interpretation to determine its meaning. These tools include:

In this earlier blog, I commented on the pending litigation over unanimous verdicts at courts-martial. As military defense lawyers we continue to support the advice given that the issue should be raised in all courts going forward.

The update is that the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces has decided United States v. Anderson. The unanimous court decided that there was still no constitutional requirement for a unanimous court-martial verdict, despite the Supreme Court decision in Ramos v. Louisiana.

That means we must now wait until the issue gets presented to the Supreme Court for a final ruling on the issue. It can take time for the Supreme Court to decide to take on an issue. That was our experience as appellate military defense counsel in United States v. Weiss, 36 M.J.224 (C.M.A. 1992) aff’d Weiss v. United States. 510 U.S. 163 (1994). So,

Have you been convicted at court-martial? Want a speedy review of your case for appeal?

There are two major roadblocks: (1) having the record of trial delivered to and docketed with the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, or Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals and  (2) the workload of the military appellate defense counsel. The roadblocks are, in my opinion, the Service Judge Advocate General’s fault in not assigning enough people to complete post-trial actions or work on the appeal promptly.

Immediately after the trial, there has to be a formal Entry of Judgment–which usually takes 30-45 days to complete. Then, the Government must prepare a full trial record forwarded to the appellate court and the military appellate defense lawyers who will work on the appeal. Here is where most of the delay can happen. These records take time to prepare–and too often, the Government takes an unreasonably long to do this. Records can take six to two years to get to the appellate court before the appellate defense counsel can get to work, and a decision comes from the court. We have a case right now where it took 412 days. The Navy-Marine Corps just decided on a case that took about ten years.

YOUR MILITARY DEFENSE COUNSEL SHOULD CHALLENGE THE APPLICATION OF THE MILITARY RULE OF EVIDENCE 311.

THE RULE VIOLATES THE U.S. CONSTITUTION.

WE ARE CHALLENGING THAT AT THE U. S. SUPREME COURT NOW.

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