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Evidence can get lost or destroyed before trial and thus is unavailable to the defense. It depends on what that evidence is and what remedy there is for the loss. A primary question is what is the importance of the lost evidence for the defense, does it mean the accused can’t get a fair trial, and so what remedy must the judge apply? It also makes a difference when the evidence was lost or destroyed and who lost or destroyed the evidence.

The issue is very important because by the time an accused gets the opportunity to do anything about it, much time has passed. Investigations take months before anyone in the defense counsel team knows that and more months before the issue can be presented to a judge. This is why at Cave & Freeburg we have started sending evidence preservation requests as soon as we get the case.

The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces has issued significant cases on this issue which should be a starting point for a military defense counsel in evaluating the meaning and consequences of lost or destroyed evidence: Simmermacher and Stellato.

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.

United States v. Filmore.

1. If a victim testifies on sentencing–the rules of evidence apply the same as any other witness. Article 6b does not waive the rules of evidence when a victim testifies in sentencing. (Note, the victim gave both sworn and unsworn statements.) Failure to follow the rules (even without defense objection) gets the defense and government, and court to agree there was an error and to get a new sentencing hearing.[1]

2. It is NEVER EVER a good idea for an accused (or one of his witnesses)[2] to impeach the verdict. Gone are the days when we could legally seek reconsideration of the findings, even through sentencing. The legitimate tactic at the time was to present the accused’s version of events through his unsworn and then argue that the members may wish to reconsider the findings.

A press release alerts us to several proposals for the NDAA FY 2023 which could affect military justice. One addresses Supreme Court access (something NIMJ has long advocated for), and another is the question of unanimous verdicts post-Ramos v. Louisiana. A third addresses a suspect’s records (and their removal) when “Service member is subject to non-judicial punishment for the offense to which the record pertains; or is pardoned for the offense to which the record pertains.” You can find the House Armed Services Committee actions here. We get many requests from persons who want to have criminal records expunged when their case is not referred to court-martial but is dealt with by Article 15 (NJP) or administrative discharge. These records often wrongly suggest the person was “convicted.” They also can be retrieved by current and future employers when making a hiring decision. So, the “Titling” of a subject on MCIO investigation can be affected for the rest of their life, even when not convicted of something.

Courtesy GMJR.

For those following the ongoing litigation in Dial, here is a link to the current status (18072022).

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