On December 10, 2020, the US Supreme Court ruled that military rape cases occurring between 1986 and 2006 are no longer subject to a statute of limitations. This 20-year legal gray area has fluctuated between having and not having legal time limits for rape cases several times in recent years.
What is a Statute of Limitations?
This law sets a time limit for initiating legal proceedings from the date of the alleged wrongdoing. If the deadline passes, the victim can no longer file a lawsuit on the subject. The length of time varies by crime and jurisdiction.
Statutes of limitations apply to most civil cases, such as medical malpractice, which has a two-year time limit for filing a lawsuit. Criminal offenses can also have deadlines, but serious crimes—such as murder, kidnapping, and some sex offenses—have no statute of limitations.
Changes to the Statute of Limitations for Military Rape Cases
The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) was enacted in 1950. Under Article 43b, certain offenses, including rape, had a three-year statute of limitations.
In the 1977 case of Coker v. Georgia, the Supreme Court held that the death penalty was “grossly disproportionate” for a civilian defendant convicted of raping an adult. At the time, Georgia was the only state that still imposed the death penalty for rape, which the court ruled a form of “cruel and unusual punishment” forbidden by the Eighth Amendment.
Even so, Article 120 of the UCMJ continued to hold that military rape was punishable by death, and the statute of limitations did not apply. The government argued that this should remain the case because rape is particularly damaging in the military context. It disrupts good order and discipline and, in some cases, may even have serious international implications.
Starting in 1986, Article 43b stopped listing which offenses were exempt from the statute of limitations. Instead, it simply said, “[a] person charged with…any offense punishable by death may be tried and punished at any time without limitation.” The remaining offenses defaulted to a five-year statute of limitations.
Then, in the 1998 case of Willenbring v. Neurauter, the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) explicitly recognized “that rape is an ‘offense punishable by death’ for purposes of exempting it from the five-year statute of limitations.” At the conclusion of this case, there was no statute of limitations onUS charges of rape against an accused.
In 2006, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) removed from Article 120 the express directive that the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for rape. At the same time, Congress updated Article 43a to explicitly state that rape charges could be “tried and punished at any time without limitation.”
In the 2018 decision of US v. Mangahas—involving a 2015 military rape conviction for an incident in 1997—the CAAF overruled Willenbring. It reversed its view on the death penalty for rape under the limitations provision enforced from 1986 to 2006. The CAAF concluded that the death penalty for rape cases violated the UCMJ’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. This decision upset the long-held understanding that the statute of limitations didn’t apply to rape cases.
Also in 2018, three Air Force service members accused of rape between 1998 and 2005 were charged and convicted thanks to new evidence brought to light. Based on the understanding at the time, the statute of limitations did not apply, and no one raised this defense at trial.
However, the Mangahas decision was made while these cases were under review, which led to CAAF overturning the convictions. At least 10 other military rape cases were dismissed as a result of the Mangahas decision.
US v. Briggs
In 2014, Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Briggs was found guilty of raping another service member in 2005. Briggs appealed the case to the United States Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals (AFCCA), arguing that the statute of limitations should have applied based on the Coker and Mangahas rulings. The AFCCA rejected Briggs’ challenge and affirmed his conviction because he failed to raise his concerns at trial.
Briggs then sought review in the CAAF, alleging ineffective defense counsel for their failure to inform him of the right to assert the statute of limitations as required by the Rules for Courts Martial (RCM). Initially, the CAAF denied review and affirmed the AFCCA’s judicial composition.
Then, in 2017, Briggs and several other service members filed a petition seeking a review of CAAF’s decisions. While this petition was pending, the CAAF decided Mangahas. On remand, the CAAF dismissed the rape charges against Briggs. Under the Mangahas decision, which established a five-year deadline for rape cases between 1986 and 2006, the statute of limitations had expired by the 2014 prosecution date.
US Supreme Court Rules on Briggs in December 2020: No Statute of Limitations
The 8-0 opinion issued earlier this month reinstates the conviction of Briggs and two of the three Air Force service members convicted of rape in 2018.
In this latest opinion, authored by Justice Samuel Alito, the justices agreed that the UCMJ favored the government’s interpretation that military rape is punishable by death and therefore not subject to the statute of limitations. The justices also agreed that rape is an “egregious and destructive crime” no matter who commits it, but that rape by a military service member is particularly harmful. The limitations provision needs to remain in place, they argued, to maintain “order and discipline and operate in a national security environment.”
Defend Yourself Against Military Rape Charges
As you can see, the law is in constant flux. Even when a case has been decided, it can always be overturned, for better or worse. If you or a loved one is facing a court martial on rape charges, it’s critical to understand the ins and outs of military law. Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law would be happy to represent you. We can handle even the most complex cases and have a record of achieving desirable outcomes for accused service members stationed worldwide.
Joseph Jordan is an accomplished, experienced Military Criminal Defense Attorney who specializes in defending ALL service members against violations of the UCMJ. He believes in and seeks out Justice for Soldiers, Sailors, Coast Guardsmen, Airmen and Marines worldwide.