Are military law enforcement investigations complete, thorough, and unbiased? It depends. The MCIO leadership and agents will tell you they are. Our experience over the years both as military defense counsel and military prosecutors is that investigations can be incomplete, with leads not followed, evidence not retrieved, and bias in the reports submitted to prosecutors and the command. For example, the reports tend to focus on the bad things about you and ignore what might be helpful to you or your case. We call these instances of biased investigations as affected by confirmation bias. Many times, this doesn’t make a lot of difference. But, in sexual assault cases, a biased and incomplete investigation can lead to problems for the defense—and also for the prosecution. The recent Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) decision in United States v. Horne is an example of how things can go wrong and, in your case, might create serious problems if something similar happened during your investigation.
According to the appellate decisions, the special victim counsel (SVC) and the trial counsel (TC) tried to discourage investigators from interviewing a witness. It worked for a while during which time it appears the witness had a less clear memory of events. The TC thought the witness might have “exculpatory” information which they are obligated to disclose to the defense and which might be helpful to the accused.
The Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals (AFCCA) decision has an extensive review of the facts and circumstances of what happened. Ultimately, the Air Force court and CAAF decided while it was wrong, there was no prejudice against the accused. This case represents how a prepared and aggressive military defense lawyer can help protect you and the record. Sadly, this could happen to you. It is not clear if the SVCs and TCs will learn anything from this case to study their practices and comply with the law and ethics rules. We shall see. The CAAF has these words,
Turning to the merits, we agree that some of the facts and circumstances that Appellant has identified would harm the public’s perception of the military justice system. Indeed, matters (1) through (5) generally concern a point that the Government itself concedes in its brief, namely, that the efforts of trial counsel and SVC “to discourage law enforcement agents from interviewing [the victim’s husband]—an outcry witness—were unwise and inadvisable” because neither side “benefits when [AF]OSI fails to fully investigate a case.” We also specifically agree that the trial counsel, as a judge advocate, should have known better than to discourage an AFOSI investigation into potentially exculpatory evidence.
“Unwise[?]” Really? If it were you the accused doing that, I bet there would be an obstruction or attempted obstruction of justice on your charge sheet.
“[S]hould have known better[?]” If it were you the accused, doing that, the prosecutor would argue that that isn’t a defense.
If you are an accused, how would you feel about this? How about your spouse, your mother, your family, your friends, your neighbors, or your town? Would people believe you will get a fair trial in the military at a court-martial under the UCMJ?
The prosecution was saved in this case because, according to CAAF, the SVC and TC were removed from any further participation in the case, there was very thorough litigation at trial, and there was no intent to prejudice the accused by this “regrettable error,” and, fortunately, it turns out that there was, in the court’s view, no actual prejudice. Of course, SVCs and TCs are not going to concede that your regrettable error should not be punished. They will go all out to have you found guilty.