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MRE 414 in Child Molestation Cases & How It Impacted U.S. v. Fetrow

In the average criminal defense case, one can expect that the defendant will be tried based only on evidence pertinent to the crime immediately in question. That is to say, for example, someone being tried for an alleged theft would not expect the prosecution to bring forth evidence of an entirely separate alleged theft crime carried out years ago. However, child molestation cases are held to a different set of evidentiary rules and standards, allowing “similar-crimes evidence” to be used against the defendant.

This special circumstance originates from federal Rule 414, which states that “in a criminal case in which a defendant is accused of child molestation, the court may admit evidence that the defendant committed any other child molestation. The evidence may be considered on any matter to which it is relevant.” If the evidence of a similar crime is to be submitted as evidence in an ongoing investigation or trial, then the prosecution has to notify the defendant and his or her legal team no less than 15 days before a trial date. Furthermore, “child” is defined within rule 414 as any person under the age of 14 and “child molestation” is any act defined as such under any preexisting federal or state law.

Understanding MRE 414

As a direct counterpart to federal Rule 414, Military Rule of Evidence (MRE) 414 carries the same implications and allowances, but applies to court-martial and military criminal defense cases. MRE 414 also uses legal definitions set forth in the Uniform Code of Military Justice Article 120, Sexual Assault of a Child. Its use was reaffirmed in the 2007 Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) case of United States v. Schroder.

Within U.S. v. Schroder, the case brought to court-martial involved accusation of Schroder raping his 12-year old daughter and committing other illegal and indecent acts with the 12-year old daughter of his neighbor. However, the prosecution brought forth and relied heavily upon similar-case evidence that came through a testimony from his step-daughter, who alleged he molested her 22 years prior to the current charges; other allegations from his daughter were also considered as applicable evidence despite those instances not being brought to charges. The CAAF put forth in its reasoning for following MRE 414 and reaffirming it in the Schroder case that the “Rule does not limit the use of evidence to qualifying acts within a specification, but rather to prove the specification itself.”

In all regards, MRE 414 acts directly against the defendant in a child molestation case brought to court-martial. No longer must the accused defend himself or herself from current charges, but also any potential charges and allegations that could have case similarities.

U.S. v. Fetrow & MRE 414

MRE 414 can be a powerful tool for the prosecution in a court-martial procedure, but only if it passes legal scrutiny and meets case prerequisites. It was recently reexamined in United States v. Fetrow, which used MRE 414 rules to actually reverse a conviction.

Technical Sergeant Fetrow of the United States Air Force pled not guilty to seven charges of child molestation but was ultimately convicted by a general court-martial. The sentencing tied to the conviction included 25 years of confinement, rank reduction, forfeitures of military income, and a dishonorable discharge from service.

The seven charges that were weighed in the sentencing were all surrounding alleged molestation between Fetrow and his two step-children. Using MRE 414, the prosecution brought forth similar-case evidence that showed there had been three sexual molestation allegations involving Fetrow’s daughter, but these were never brought to charges. The military judge determined that these three other acts could be submitted as evidence since they were prohibited by Article 120b.

However, Article 120b definitions were not considered under MRE 414 at the time of Fetrow’s court-martial. The Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals found the judge to be in error, as the judge essentially made a decision based on military law not yet to be. The Court further concluded that two of the three sexual acts allegedly involving Fetrow’s biological daughter could be deemed admissible under MRE 414 as it was written during his court-martial.

Prejudice Potentially Alters Case Outcome

Even though the AF CCA found that one instance of Fetrow’s alleged molestation of his daughter could be viewed as MRE 414 evidence in the ongoing court-martial involving seven counts of molestation against his step-children, it also found that the damage to his reputation caused by the two other inadmissible instances was significant. The fact that the two other instances were at all considered created an unjust prejudice against Fetrow, the CCA stated. While the CCA moved for a rehearing, the case was moved up to the CAAF for further review nonetheless.

The CAAF found itself in agreeance with the AF CCA’s conclusion that similar-case evidence had to be inclusive of an act actually considered criminal at the time, not when the case is reviewed. It also agreed that the draft of the MRE 414 used to submit similar-case evidence must also be relative. Lastly, in regard to the two inadmissible instances of alleged sexual molestation, the CAAF determined that “the result is that evidence of bad character has been improperly admitted against the accused […]” As a result, the CAAF has not challenged the CCA’s movement for a rehearing, which could ultimately lead to a new ruling or lessened penalties.

Military criminal defense attorney Joseph L. Jordan has devoted his career to protecting and upholding the rights of military service members accused of serious crimes and violations. Throughout his extensive career, he has become well-known as a court-martial lawyer that fully understands the UCMJ, follows critical updates such as those to MRE 414, and how it can all be used to his clients’ advantage. For more information or to ask about retaining his services, interested parties can call 888.616.6177 or contact his firm online.

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