The Navy-Marine Corps Criminal Court of Appeals (NMCCA) has reversed multiple serious crime convictions, including rape and kidnapping, following a thorough review of United States v. Hale. The reversal of these convictions has also halted a 26-year confinement sentencing. After it was found that there was significant conflicts of interests among three parties in the case, it was deemed that the reversal was necessary.
The conflicts of interests involve (full identities withheld for case confidentiality):
- Captain KC: Acted as the lead military defense counsel.
- Captain CC: Husband of Captain KC, who acted as trial counsel with no official connection to case.
- LtCol CT: Acted as prosecutor and unofficially supervised Captain CC.
- Captain JS: Acted as secondary defense counsel.
Concerns that KC’s defense representation was compromised arose when she began to sob during court-martial proceedings and could not continue with the case. The emotional breakdown occurred after CT accused the defense counsel of unethical conduct, namely discussing evidential matters with witnesses in an unofficial venue. It is worth noting that CT was CC’s reviewing officer (RO) and KC’s own prospective RO at the time. The NMCCA went as far as calling the situation a “sepsis of undisclosed conflict” that ended up “infect[ing] much of the record.”
CONVOLUTED RELATIONSHIPS & QUESTIONABLE COUNSEL
CC became a trial counsel pertinent to CT, and CT became CC’s RO before KC began representing the appellant. KC did not inform the appellant that CC was acting as a trial counsel before the case was moved to trial. KC also did not tell the appellant that CT was now CC’s RO. Lastly, KC never told the appellant that she would likely have an opportunity to become a trial counsel in the region once the trial concluded. As it can be seen, even without a thorough understanding of court-martials and military law, there is a complicated web of relationships strewn amongst those acting as counsel in this case.
The NMCCA writes in its review that KC should have disclosed any potential conflicts of interests due to personal and professional relationships to both the appellate in the case and the ruling military judge. Her decision to not disclose this information did not necessarily create a legal issue but, when the circumstances eventually came to light, her decision did bring the authority and authenticity of the case into question. The NMCCA three-judge panel also noted that had there been just one instance of conflict, the matter may have been set aside and the trial would not have been jeopardized. However, when taking all issues into account at once, the potential conflicts are too large to ignore.
CONFLICT OF INTERESTS CREATE THREE POTENTIAL ISSUES
As noted, a conflict of interest is not preferred but only becomes a problem when it creates real issues within a case. KC’s, CC’s, and CT’s interrelationships brought about three categories of problematic conflicts of interests, as stated by the NMCCA. Indeed, the blame for the conflicts does not fall on one of these service members in particular, but is instead distributed among them all.
The three real concerns caused by the conflict of interests were named as:
- CT attempted to use emotional vulnerabilities of opposing counsel as an advantage. CT stated that he had taken “personal offense” to some of the defense counsel’s tactics, and labeled some of KC’s own defense arguments as “disgusting.” The NMCCA cites this sort of language within a criminal defense case as prosecutorial misconduct.
- CT used his impending RO status over KC as a threat against her. During a discussion before the trial, KC informed CT that she planned to object to evidence he would use in his prosecution. CT’s response was, or was quite similar to, “Remember, you’re coming back to the government sometime.”
- KC and CC grew fearful that CT would use RO status to sway the defense counsel. When KC told CC of CT’s behavior and comments during the pre-trial meeting, CC urged her not to take action against his potential prosecutorial misconduct, as it could damage his career, given that CT was CC’s reviewing officer.
APPELLANT’S CHANCES IN COURT WERE JEOPARDIZED
As the appellate grew aware of the conflicts of interests created by the convoluted relationships between the counsels involved in the case, the need to show that these conflicts jeopardized the case itself grew. As it is stated in United States v. Green – which directly cites Strickland v. Washington – the appellant must show that a conflict of interest negatively impacted the performance of their defense counsel, or created an “actual lapse in representation.”
The NMCCA concludes that the appellant’s chances of receiving a fair trial through court-martial were indeed jeopardized. CT’s statements before and during the trial indicated undue influence, and KC’s sobbing reaction in court indicates that the total circumstances of the conflicts of interests did disturb her enough to create a very real lapse in the appellant’s representation. It was held that KC acted against her client’s best interests to protect both CC’s and her own standing under CT, who had or would act as their RO.
ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS & LESSONS TO BE LEARNED
Although the NMCCA has reversed the conviction of the appellate due to the obvious signs of jeopardized defense counsel, there are still many questions regarding this case that need answering. Captain JS, the secondary counsel that was named specifically by the appellate, is oddly absent or peaceable throughout the proceedings, even after KC was moved to tears in court. Why was he not more involved? Why did the military judge presiding over the case not also take some sort of action when KC had an emotional breakdown? The behavior clearly indicates some sort of undue hardship or undisclosed complication, after all.
In the end, the key lesson those accused of military crimes should take away from U.S. v. Hale is to always hire a civilian attorney to manage a military criminal defense case. Even under the most ideal of circumstances, using defense counsel assigned through official military channels and not one hired independently and from a civilian practice, opens opportunities for conflicts of interests. By the nature of military ranking and hierarchy, and the nature of many court-martials and military trials, opposing counsel and military judges are more than likely to have some sort of shared past.
Military Criminal Defense Attorney Joseph Jordan is a civilian attorney with the trial skills, Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) familiarity, and legal experience required to tackle any military criminal defense case. For years, he has been representing military service members from all branches of the Armed Forces and all across the world. To retain the defense counsel of a trustworthy civilian attorney, and to avoid any potential conflicts of interest in your defense case, contacthis firm online or call (866) 361-4723.