Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Would they have held a seance if the author judge had died?

On Friday, CAAF summarily affirmed three decisions of the Navy-Marine Corps Court. The first was United States v. Coleman, __ M.J. ___, No. 06-0532/NA (C.A.A.F. Nov. 16, 2007) (summary disposition). Airman Apprentice Coleman was sentenced to LWOP in 1999. In February 2006, NMCCA granted partial relief on the findings but otherwise affirmed the sentence. United States v. Coleman, No. NMCCA 200101009 (N-M. Ct. Crim. App. Feb. 10, 2006). In January 2007, CAAF granted Coleman's petition and summarily reversed NMCCA's decision due to an ambiguity in its holding. United States v. Coleman, 64 M.J. 402 (C.A.A.F. 2007) (summary disposition). Then in March 2007, in an unpublished per curiam opinion that appears to be available only on NKO, NMCCA resolved that ambiguity. United States v. Coleman, No. NMCCA 200101009 (N-M. Ct. Crim. App. March 29, 2007) (per curiam). That decision is jurisprudentially interesting. NMCCA explained:

In an Order dated 31 January 2007, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces set aside our decision, stating that "[b]ecause two specifications under two charges remain (premeditated murder under Charge I and robbery under Charge II), it is unclear what findings were approved by the Court of Criminal Appeals." The record was then returned to the Judge Advocate General for remand to this court "for clarification as to the affirmed findings." The record of trial was returned to this court on 12 February 2007.

Since all the judges who participated in this panel's original decision of 10 February 2006 have since left active duty, the current senior judge of Panel One of this court contacted the author of the original decision for clarification as to the affirmed findings. The author of the original opinion, Brigadier General Charles Wm. Dorman, confirmed that the court’s original intent was to set aside only the felony murder specification, and to affirm the remaining charges and specifications; that is, Charge I and its sole remaining specification, a violation of Article 118, UCMJ, and Charge II and its sole specification, a violation of Article 122, UCMJ.

Therefore, for the reasons stated in our decision dated 10 February 2006, which we hereby adopt, we set aside and dismiss Specification 2 of Charge I; affirm the findings of guilty of Charge I and Specification 1 thereunder, and Charge II and its sole specification; and affirm the sentence as approved by the convening authority.

Id., slip op. at 2.

That jurisprudential approach gives me pause, but on Friday CAAF affirmed that decision without addressing whether it is appropriate for a court to consult with a retired member to discern the meaning of an earlier judicial opinion -- a matter to now be raised by a cert petition, perhaps. CAAF instead addressed whether Coleman's due process rights were violated by post-trial and appellate delay. The court concluded that even if such a violation did occur, any such error "was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt" and affirmed. United States v. Coleman, __ M.J. ___, No. 06-0532/NA (C.A.A.F. Nov. 16, 2007) (summary disposition).

1 comment:

Christopher Mathews said...

Interesting approach.

When the Air Force had a similar situation (a complicated murder case retured for further review), it recalled Colonel Earl Hodgson, the former Chief Judge of what was then AFCMR, to active duty, and assigned him to the court. He became the author judge for the subsequent opinion.

Recalling an officer may be complicated, but the service has options to smooth things along (for example, Judge Hodgson had his chambers in San Antonio, rather than back in DC). It seems to me that if institutional memory is really that important to a subsequent review -- so important it needs to be cited -- there are lots of tools to preserve it.