Post trial errors

Though not raised by Appellant, an error in the staff judge advocate’s recommendation (SJAR) compels us to remand the case for new post-trial processing.

United States v. Spelts, Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals (May 2018).

Now for this.

The Government would be well-advised to find no solace in our resolution of this obvious error. The Government’s neglectful post-trial processing in a significant case involving confinement for life created an issue where none should have existed. Under different facts, it might well have led to an order for new post-trial processing or even sentencing relief by this court. We take this opportunity in this published opinion to remind staff judge advocates of a point we have pressed before:

We caution SJAs to take no comfort from this holding. Because the threshold for showing prejudice is so low, it is the rare case where substantial errors in the SJAR, or post-trial process in general, do not require return of the case for further processing. . . . For that reason alone, it behooves SJAs to pay attention to what they are sending to a convening authority and take the time to get it right the first time. More importantly, however, the integrity of our military justice system demands careful attention in each and every case. While any given court-martial may seem routine to a legal office with a busy docket, rest assured it is not routine to the accused. With rare exception, it will be the single most important event in that military member’s life. Nor is it routine to the members of the accused’s unit, or to the friends, family members, or victims watching carefully to see that justice is served. Slip-shod treatment of the court-martial process, whether at the pre-trial, trial, or post-trial stage, cannot help but undermine faith in the system itself, making it less effective overall as a tool for maintaining military discipline. If a military member’s offenses are deemed serious enough to warrant court-martial, they are serious enough to demand the time needed to carefully and correctly shepherd each aspect of the case to conclusion. . . . Unfortunately, that did not happen here.

United States v. Lavoie, ACM S31453 (recon), 2009 CCA LEXIS 16 at 4 (A.F. Ct. Crim. App. 21 January 2009) (unpub.).