The U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) recently ruled that a military judge’s failure to disqualify himself from a case was grounds to reverse the verdict and authorize a rehearing. It stated that the judge’s inappropriate relationship with the prosecutor’s wife undermined “public confidence in the judiciary and military justice system.”
STAFF SERGEANT APPEALS GENERAL COURT-MARTIAL CONVICTION
Upon being convicted for assault consummated by a battery, Staff Sergeant Springer was sentenced to confinement and discharged on bad conduct. When he initially petitioned the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) for a review, it denied his request.
It was later learned that the military judge who presided over his case, Lieutenant Colonel Henry, had an “inappropriate relationship” with the trial counsel’s wife, Mrs. KC. Springer. This led to another review of his case. Based on the new information, the CAAF vacated its original denial and remanded the case to the Army CCA.
WAS THE MILITARY JUDGE’S FAILURE TO DISQUALIFY HIMSELF HARMLESS?
The question presented to the Army CCA during the appeal was whether or not Henry’s failure to recuse himself from Springer's case resulted in a lack of impartiality.
According to the slip opinion, trial counsel, Captain AC, had practiced in front of Henry since 2016. In October of 2017, Henry met AC’s wife, Mrs. KC. They began exchanging messages through Facebook, and their relationship grew deeper.
Springer’s trial was held in December of 2017. By that time, Henry and Mrs. KC’s relationship was significant enough that it was grounds for the military judge to disqualify himself from the case. However, when he was asked if anything gave reason to challenge his presiding in Springer’s trial, he never mentioned his relationship with Mrs. KC.
In April of 2018, AC stated he started noticing his wife acting strangely and asked her whether or not she was having an affair with Henry. A state bar representative advised him to report the affair. He did, which eventually resulted in Henry being removed from the bench.
Because every person is entitled to the right to trial by an impartial judge, Springer appealed his conviction, arguing the affair between Henry and Mrs. KC created unfairness in his trial.
In deciding whether or not the relationship between Henry and Mrs. KC was grounds for a reversal of the general court-martial conviction, the Army CCA asked if the military judge should have disqualified himself from the trial. It asserted that the appearance that a judge lacks impartiality was grounds for disqualification. The interactions between Henry and Mrs. KC was substantial enough that he should have recused himself or mentioned the relationship to allow the parties involved to decide whether or not to challenge.
Determining that Henry should have disqualified himself, the Army CCA then asked whether or not his presiding over the trial was harmless. It stated that although Springer was not denied a substantial right, the military judge’s conduct was enough to make a reasonable person believe his decisions lacked impartiality and weakened the public’s trust in the justice process.
WHY THE ARMY CCA’S DECISION IS SUBSTANTIAL
When a member of the military is on trial for a criminal offense, they expect the process to be fair and not violate their rights. Unfortunately, when there’s a flaw in the system, in this case, a military judge’s lack of impartiality, the verdicts and sentences handed down can be questioned. The Army CCA’s decision recognizes that not only can a judge’s bias affect outcomes but their inappropriate conduct could do so as well.
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