Monday, March 24, 2008

CGCCA sets aside guilty plea based on military judge's failure to sufficiently inquire into a potential defense

Friday was a busy day for the Coast Guard Court. In addition to issuing a writ of habeas corpus, discussed below, the Coast Guard Court issued a published opinion setting aside a guilty plea to involuntary manslaughter due to the military judge's failure to sufficiently inquire into a potential self-defense defense. United States v. Yanger, __ M.J. ___, No. 1271 (C.G. Ct. Crim. App. Mar. 21, 2008)

Petty Officer Yanger and his wife were in an argument apparently arising from her displeasure over his crack cocaine use. During the argument, she intentionally broke a crystal glass that she had bought as an anniversary present. The argument escalated when Mrs. Yanger threatened to call her husband's command and inform them of his drug use. He then grabbed and smashed her cell phone, cutting his hand on the broken crystal in the process. The argument continued and Mrs. Yanger "was in EM3 Yanger's face at that point. They argued briefly at a very close distance." After a few seconds, Petty Officer Yanger grabbed his wife's wrists and pushed her away with great force. She fell; the broken crystal jabbed into her neck, and she quickly bled to death.

While the military judge accepted Petty Officer Yanger's plea to involuntary manslaughter, the Coast Guard Court held that he hadn't done enough to explore the potential defense of self-defense. In an opinion by Chief Judge McClellan joined by Judge Felicetti, the majority reasoned:
It might be said by an incurious person that the story according to the stipulation of fact, as amplified by the military judge's questions during the inquiry on it, did not raise the defense of self-defense. But the story did beg the question: why did Appellant shove his wife? Was he escalating the altercation, or was he responding to her? A military judge, in dealing with a guilty plea, cannot be passive or incurious. In this case, the military judge wisely asked the question, and the answer, "I just wanted her out of my face with the glass" (R. at 72), sets off alarm bells. Surely it implied that the glass represented a threat. This implication conflicted with all his answers, both before and after, indicating that he did not feel physically threatened by the glass or otherwise.

We note that the stipulation of fact and the providence inquiry are replete with statements, details, and questions that address the possibility of self-defense. Hence it is clear that the parties and the military judge viewed the issue of self-defense as lingering at the fringes of the case. In this context, it would be surprising if the military judge did not consider that the potential defense of self-defense had been raised, yet he did not follow through as that view would require.

Whether the military judge thought so or not, we find that the defense was raised. He should have explained the defense to Appellant and determined whether Appellant, understanding that potential defense, believed that he had not, in the words of R.C.M. 916(e)(3), "[a]pprehended, upon reasonable grounds, that bodily harm was about to be inflicted wrongfully" on himself.

The court concluded, "[T]he unresolved self-defense issue compels us to set aside the involuntary manslaughter conviction."

Judge Lodge dissented from the reversal of the involuntary manslaughter conviction, arguing that the military judge had sufficiently inquired into a potential self-defense defense and that the providence inquiry and the stipulation of fact "adequately demonstrate that the defense of self-defense, while raised, was not available to Appellant."

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