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Appeals Court Enforces Rehearing Following "Plain Error"

A recent ruling from the United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals illustrates just how important due process should be during court-martial procedure. In United States v. Castillejo, the case of one Soldier convicted of sexual assault and abusive sexual contact, the court's three-judge panel has called for a rehearing for an evidence mistake by the prosecution that the slip opinion describes as a "plain error."

Case Background

As CAAFlog reports, during the court-martial of a Soldier facing sexual assault and abusive sexual contact charges, prosecutors played a DVD showing interview footage with the defendant being questioned by a U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) Special Agent (SA). The DVD had not been previously entered into evidence and would not be made available to jury panel members to review after an initial viewing.

The military judge, however, still allowed it to be played, stating to the jury panel that "I want to advise you that you will not have this DVD, the recording, to take back with you... So, just for your purposes, you will have to rely on your notes and your memory with regard to the exact contents of the statement." The presentation of the DVD-- which had not been entered, according to prosecutors, due to technical difficulties—drew no objection from defense counsel.

Despite the panel's limited access to that recorded testimony, it was a central talking point for the prosecution throughout the trial. The Soldier was ultimately convicted of both charges.

A Plain Error

Despite the lack of objection from the defense in this case, the United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals invoked its jurisdiction over the case due to the occurrence of a "plain error." The conditions for a plain error in a court-martial are as follows:

  • An error exists
  • The error is plainly obvious
  • The error materially prejudiced a right of the accused

The judge's panel in this case saw that the failure to admit the DVD footage to evidence met all three requirements for a plain error-- the agreed that there isn't even a record of the prosecution offering the footage into evidence and that the use of the DVD was "extensive, pervasive, and highly prejudicial." In response, the guilty verdicts have been set aside and a new court-martial will be held.

Not only is this case indicative of how important due process is from the moment an arrest occurs until a verdict is rendered, it also illustrates just how important having capable defense counsel is. In this case, the presentation of interview footage that had not been entered into evidence is clearly a violation of procedure that should have been objected to on the accused's behalf.

If you are a military service member charged with a crime, your choice in representation will have a direct effect on the outcome of your case. Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law is a military defense lawyer with more than 10+ years of experience with the U.S. Army. He has traveled the world to protect the rights and interests of our troops and consistently secures favorable outcomes on their behalf.

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