Recent Victory- Retention of MSG

At a recent Fort Campbell, Kentucky Courts-Martial, the goal was no kick and no incarceration of a 22 year Army E-8.  The Government brought 25 specifications against my client.  They could only prove up 4 minor offense.  My client remains in the military with and received a rank reduction and no jail time.  To say the least the Government was unhappy.

 

The next step is to get the rank back.

Hire an attorney now – the new rules for the article 32

If you need to contact me directly, text me at (931) 217-7648.

Within the last year, Congress has created a series of new rules which relate to the uniform code of military justice (UCMJ). These rules are transforming the way the defense attorneys need to defend their soldier clients at courts-martial. One of the things that has been radically changed is the discovery process. Essentially the military has enacted a victims rights act. This victims rights act has created barriers and in some cases tends to infringe on a Soldier’s constitutional rights to defend himself. Congress has set up barriers between the Soldier’s detailed defense counsel and an alleged victim. Statutorily, the defense counsel cannot directly talk to the alleged victim, unless he works through government counsel or victim advocates. There needs to be a chaperone, trial counsel, or special victims advocate alongside the alleged victim whenever the defense counsel is talking to that alleged victim. This is an unprecedented discovery barrier in what has otherwise been an open discovery system under the uniform code of military justice.

The other things being limited for defense counsel is the use of discovery and open discovery at the article 32 hearing. What was once a means of delving into the government’s full and complete case has now been likened to a “preliminary hearing”.. The problem is that in most civilian systems there is a grand jury process where a group of neutral citizens review whether or not a case should go to trial. By using the preliminary hearing system, and continuing to use the referral process with commanders, the military is destroying any controls that would be in place to protect the soldier from frivolous allegations. The Article 32 creates a paper trail that makes it look as though there is a real investigation going on, but by essentially excluding the defense counsel from active participation, the Article 32 is a one way street for prosecutors to present a case. The rubber stamp approach does not give the General Courts-Martial Convening Authority a real understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the case.

This may not matter.  May Commanders are afraid of dismissing Article 120 cases because they feel this will jeopardize their careers.  Scrutiny from Superior Commanders, DOD and Congress make it virtually impossible for a Commander to dismiss an Article 120 without real harm to their career.  The problem with this is that with the new Article 32 and lack of Command discretion, innocent Soldiers are being forced to go all the way to trial.

These new rules and discovery have placed a burden on the appointed trial defense counsel working for the Government. There seems to be an opening under the rules for civilian defense counsel to be able to act quickly and prior to preferral and referral. Civilian counsel prior to the case being officially picked up are arguably not under government authority. There is an argument that they can talk to the alleged victim.

Essentially, most posts do not detail any trial defense services counsel until after the charges have been preferred. A soldier that have the means to hire civilian defense counsel can do so at any time, even before an investigation. It appears that if a Soldier suspects for any reason that he may be charged in the future with an article 120, sexual assault type case, he needs to seriously consider hiring civilian counsel almost immediately. This would be one way to get around some of the discovery rules, and allows the defense counsel through either a private investigator or by calling any potential witnesses himself to be able to get early discovery.

The counterargument of course is that the problem of sexual assault in the military must be dealt with harshly. The victims must be protected and the perpetrators must go to jail. This doesn’t account for the uniqueness of the military justice system. Our soldiers give their lives and sacrifice everything for this country. When we begin to take away their basic freedoms and rights under the United States Constitution, the very thing that they fight for, we jeopardize all of our freedoms

How a Courts-Martial Works

Click here to schedule a phone consultation

Here is a video blog that goes through both the procedural process of a Courts-Martial and also advice on how to best handle certain situation in the process.  I have also provided a PowerPoint slide that breaks down the basic process.

Click this link to download the Courts-Martial PowerPoint. Court Martial PP

 

Non-judicial Punishment

Article 15, Non-Judicial Punishment

Click here to schedule your free phone consultation!

Article 15, also referred to as non-judicial punishment (NJP), is a form of disciplinary action that can be taken upon those service members accused of minor offenses. This will depend upon the nature and gravity of the offense and is under the sole discretion of the commanding officer as to whether non-judicial punishment will be used or a case will go to a court-martial. If you have been accused of a minor offense, you will likely face non-judicial punishment as covered under Article 15. If you have been accused of a crime such as assault, rape, robbery, or murder, you will most likely face a court-martial.

Nashville Military Attorney James Phillips is experienced with Article 15s and successful strategies to ensure they do not go to court-martial or include excessive punishment. As a service member, you have the right to have representation at your Article 15 hearing. You can work with a military attorney who can present evidence and witness testimony to your commanding officer, possibly getting your charges dropped or keeping your penalties to a minimum.

Judge Alone for Sexual Assault UCMJ Article 120 allegations

Sexual Assault allegations brought against soldiers and sailors are very hard to defend against in the military.  One of the problems is that many of these sexual assault type cases are “he said/she said” cases, where the alleged victim and the servicemember are each telling very different stories.  Many times alcohol is involved and the memories of witnesses are blurred or hazy.

The presumptive civilian and military defense tactic is to go with a military panel.  Many times enlisted soldier believe they will get a better shake with a panel than they will a military judge.

I have recently been having phenomanal success in Article 120 cases.  My recent 120 defenses have either resulted in verdicts of not guilty or low level sentences.  One reason for this success is that my clients have trusted me when I have recommended using a Judge Alone.  My experience with Article 120 cases is that they are generally very hard to prove and much of the prosecutions evidence lends itself to attack.

Reasons for going Military Judge Alone:

1.  Judges tend to be more fact based and willing to critically look at the evidence and determine whether the evidence presented by the Government proves the elements of the offense. This can be critical in close cases.

2.Defense attorneys in a 120 case need to by HYPER AGRESSIVE and attack the Government’s case.  This is done by objecting to everything.  A judge will generally not hold objections against the defense and therefore, no harm, no foul.  A military panel many times will believe the the slick defense attorney is hiding something.

3. The defense is probably going to be most effective with a hard cross exam on the very wounded victim.  A panel won’t like or put up with this if she or he is a nice person or if they are a child.

4.  Sentencing is more predictable with a judge.

5.  Motions can be used to present otherwise excluded evidence to a judge.  A panel will never see the motions.

6.  The Accused can get credit for pleading guilty to lower level offenses or lesser includeds.

Military Judge Alone can be a very effective tactic, unless for some reason or other, the defense believes that the victim is so unlikeable that they are likely to turn a panel off.  If this is not the case, think long and hard before doing a sexual assault in front of a panel.Law Blogs
Law

Summary Courts- Martial Relook

If you want self help military legal to guide you through a summary courts-martial, go to invisblelawyer.com.

I (www.jamesphillipslaw.com) recently represented a client at Fort Campbell in a Summary Court Martial and upon reflection have decided to follow up on an earlier post about Summary Courts-Martial (https://jaglaw.wordpress.com/2009/02/22/summary-court-martial-a-fair-process/).  The reason for this is that there was a suggestion in my prior post that Summary Courts-Martial are somehow inherently unfair.  That was not what I intended to convey.  I was attempting to portray the feel of a summary courts-martial to the servicemember and also the inherent problem with using summary court officers who are wholly unaware of the legal aspects of the UCMJ and the Rules in the Manual for Courts-Martial (MCM).

Last week, I represented a soldier at Fort Campbell on several drug charges.  In that case there were issues that had to be heard through a Motion to Suppress.  The case in some ways hinged on whether or not Article 31 rights had been given to the soldier and whether or not his statement and all derivative evidence should be suppressed (fruit of the poison tree doctrine).  The Summary Court Officer began the proceeding with an eye towards conviction, but as the Summary Court proceeded he became very thought and began to examine the legality and competency of the evidence.  In his verdict, he took into account the Article 31 rights issue and weighted it against the competent evidence that had been presented.  Some of this thoughtful analysis was brought about by the long discussions and period of education that took place between myself, as the only attorney in the room, the Summary Court Officer and the paralegal assigned to record the record of trial.  In the end, using his own initiative, the Summary Court Officer was able to properly navigate the proceeding and come up with both findings and sentence that were legally justified and consistent with a judgement that would have been found in a higher level Courts-Martial in front of a judge or panel.

Much of this was obviously driven by the personality and training of the Summary Court Officer.  In essence, he was a GOOD one.  That ultimately is the problem with Summary Court Martials.   Judges have been trained to provide consistency in the Court Martial.  They know the rules of evidence.  Hopefully, they are up on their case law.  Most of the military and civilian attorneys that practice before a Judge have an idea of how he rules.  All of these things provide defense attorneys and their clients a basis for good advice and sound decision-making.  This is much harder when you are operating in the realm of the Summary Courts-Martial.

In my Motion to Suppress at the Summary Court Martial last week, although the Motion was a valid legal argument, I did not know how the Summary Court Officer would view the Motion.  Was this defense trickery?  Was this a non-issue because he didn’t care?  Was he already convinced the accused was guilty?  It was hard for me to advise the client on whether or not he should object to the SCM because I didn’t know whether or not there would be an honest and fair assessment of our case by the SCM Officer.  We were lucky that this SCM Officer was very thoughtful and serious about the process.

Some of the arbitrariness of the Summary Court Process could be taken away by giving the SCM Officer more training in this area.  Maybe picking them for a term of duty or sending them through a class on legal justice.  Either way, if some of the arbitrariness is taken away, an SCM can be the best way for a servicemember to go.

Behenna Mistrial Denied

LT Behenna was convicted and sentenced to 25 years of confinement by a military panel in mid February.  The Defense, through Attorney Jack Zimmerman, made a claim that the trial was inherently unfair because a prosecution expert agreed with the defense experts that the forensic evidence suggested that Ali Mansur was probably standing at the time that he was shot.  This was the central theme of the defense throughout the trial.  That Ali Mansur, although naked, had made a threatening move by standing up before he was shot by LT Behenna.  This, combined with the fact that Ali Mansur was a suspected terrorist, should have lead the military panel to find that LT Behenna was legally justified in killing Ali Mansur.

Judge Dickson during the mistrial motion and the military panel during the finding of fact had to weigh the direct testimony of witnesses against the expert testimony.  In this case, the experts of both the defense and apparently one from the prosecution were in direct conflict with the eyewitnesses, Harry the interpreter and SSG Mitch Warner.  In this case, there may be a reason that there was such a big discrepancy.

When this case was initially investigated, the Iraqi police were not the first on the scene.  Members of Ali Mansur’s family and friends initially arrived to inspect the body.  They tampered with the evidence, moved the body and moved the forensic evidence.  The main police video was taken on a handheld cell phone.  The evidence of the grenade fragments were turned over to the the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division by the Iraqi police after they had retrieved them from Ali Mansur’s family.  There was literally no chain of custody on much of the evidence.  At the Article 32 hearing, the Iraqi Pathologist misidentified Ali Mansur’s body and much of his autopsy seemed questionable.  And, finally, SSG Warner’s testimony was not fully explored until less than a week prior to LT Behenna’s trial.  Most of the experts, who rely on some eyewitness testimony to recreate their crime scenes, had little or not reliable evidence to work with.

This unreliable evidence, couple with conflicting eyewitness testimony, made it extremely difficult for the military panel to use experts as the basis for their final verdict.  Unfortunately for LT Behenna, the military panel was in a position where they had to use their own judgment to determine whether or not to believe the defense’s expert witnesses. 

This is why it may be difficult to determine whether or not the prosecution was out of line in not calling their own expert witnesses to the stand after the defense expert witnesses testified that Ali Mansur was probably standing at the time he was shot.  This evidence was already before the military panel and was in direct contradiction to the eye witness accounts of what happened.  For the purposes of the prosecution, they had a good faith basis to argue that Ali Mansur may not have been standing, unfortunately, this was due to the inept investigation of this case and the crime scene.  The Iraqi’s created much of the problem through their inability to secure the crime scene, create a solid chain of custody on all evidence and to properly label and photograph the crime scene.  This, in and of itself, may have hurt the defense more than anything else.

Judge Dickson’s recommendation that LT Behenna should have a reduced sentence should probably be appreciated by both the defense and the prosecution in this case.  As a Military Judge, Dickson is both experienced and wise.  By compromising the verdict, he has recommended a reasonable sentence, in the face of the military panels verdict, and the difficulties in compromised evidence.

SSG Warner heads home

I (www.jamesphillipslaw.com) spoke to SSG Mitch Warner’s family on Monday morning.  They solidly stand behind Mitch and are now beginning to gather the evidence required for us to put on an appeal for SSG Warner.  In speaking to them, they spoke of their disappointment with the US Army and the decision-making that lead to the death of detainee Ali Mansur by LT Behenna.

SSG Warner is now headed to Fort Sill, OK, where he will serve the balance of his seventeen month sentence.  He will be close to home and at least he will finally be finished with his combat tours.

One of the questions taht I have never gotten an answer for in this case is Why did LT Behenna’s higher headquarters and unit release Ali Mansur to 5th platoon?  This seemed extremely odd to me.  5th platoon had lost soldiers and had several wounded just a couple weeks prior.  Ali Mansur was a suspect in those killings and that IED attack.  5th platoon had gone out and picked Ali Mansur and took him into the detainee detention facility as a suspect in the death of the soldiers.

So, why in the world, when the higher ups had decided that Ali Mansur had no information and couldn’t be held for the attack, did the chain of command use the same platoon that picked him up as a suspected terrorist to drop him off to the local population?  There are no good answers.  One answer would be that the Chain of Command wanted LT Behenna to have someone kill Ali Mansur.  If there was a deliberate and conscious knowledge of Ali Mansur’s alleged AQI association, the COC may have thought that LT Behenna would find a way to have Ali Mansur killed.  They could have dropped him off with those Iraqis that wanted him dead.  They could have faked an incident or escape.  The expectation may have been that 5th platoon would find a way to get the job done.

But, I am not much of a conspiracy theorist.  The more likely answer is that this was just stupid negligence.  The Chain of Command should have known that there would be an issue with the drop off of this detainee, but they were just too busy or distracted to think of the clear implications of this drop off.

Either way, this was an event that should have been avoided.  The command had a responsibility to know that soldiers that have been under attack and have suspected terrorist in detention for those attacks are not the soldiers that should drop that detainee off to the local populace.  This is a no brainer.

SSG Warner and LT Behenna are now both serving time for a death of a detainee.  The trials of both men were complicated by the fact that they each knew that Ali Mansur was a suspected AQI member.  LT Behenna did have justification for the killing, but it probably wasn’t the justification that the US Army wants to hear.  Regardless, this whole event should have been stopped before it ever got started.  Another platoon should have done the drop off.  The blame for the shots being fired can be laid at LT Behenna’s feet, but the death of Ali Mansur and the conviction of two US Infantrymen can be laid at the feet of the chain of command

Day Three LT Behenna Trial

I (www.jamesphillipslaw.com) had another opportunity to go out to watch today’s trial at Fort Campbell in US v. LT Behenna.  Today was in some ways a clear turning point for both the government case and for the defense. 

The government case concluded today with three very strong witnesses.  “Harry” the interpreter testified this morning and through his own interpreter came across as a fairly strong witness.  “Harry” went through the events which took place on 16 May 2009, describing the how 1LT Behenna shot and killed Ali Mansur in the desert outside of FOB Summerall.

Lead defense counsel Jack Zimmerman had a very good methodical cross on “Harry.”  He got Harry to say that Ali Mansur was a “Bad Man” or a “terrorist” numerous times.  He also was able to create a defense opening in the fact that Harry did not see several critical moments during the shooting.

Next, the Government called SSG Seate.  His testimony established that LT Behenna had spoken about the killing in the DFAC sometime later.  The conversation seemed to acknowledge the illegality of the act.  Zimmerman was able to get SSG Seate to say that LT Behenna was changed after the death of his men in April 09. This will later help establish that LT Behenna was very emotionally effected by the loss of his men in the April IED attack.

Finally, the government closed with SSG Warner.  I don’t want to comment too much on my client and his testimony other than to say that he was problematic for both the government and the defense.  Based on the questions that were asked by the panel of SSG Warner, they definitely considered much of what he said as substantive, despite Jack Zimmerman’s excellent cross, establishing SSG Warner’s potential biases.  Also, Jack Zimmerman cleverly was able to get SSG Warner to talk about the mandatory minimum of Life Imprisonment without parole for the offense of premeditated murder.  For the defense, this was an opportunity to remind the panel of their heavy burden in this case and to remind them that if they convict LT Behenna he will face the same mandatory minimums.

After SSG Warner’s testimony, the government closed.  They have presented a strong case, but left several doors open for the defense.  One of them being that Ali Mansur’s actions at the time of the shots being fired have not clearly been defined.

The defense presented two expert witnesses today.  The first expert witness was a pathologist out of Texas.  Essentially, he tried to establish that Ali Mansur was standing at the time he was hit with the first shot. The second expert witness was a crime scene re-constructionist.  He also attempted to establish that Ali Mansur was standing at the time he was hit with the first shot.  This was important because it would show that the physical evidence contradicts the testimony of  SSG Warner and Harry.

CPT Erwin Roberts crossed examined both expert witnesses effectively.  He was able to call into question their expert opinions by demonstrating that they may not have had enough crime scene date to make a correct opinion that was in direct contravention to the witnesses that testified. 

The panel seemed to pick up on CPT Robert’s cross, because their written questions to the expert witnesses were very much concerned which crime scene data was used for the expert opinions.

Update on LT Behenna Trial

I (www.jamesphillipslaw.com) was at Fort Campbell today and watched a portion of US v. Behenna.  The prosecution is three quarters of the way through their case.  The case so far has consisted of laying the foundations for proving the murder. The case seems strong, but the defense has yet to present their evidence and that will probably not begin until early Thursday morning. 

The panel members (or the civilian equivalent to a military jury) were fully engaged and very attentive today.   1LT Behenna’s panel consists of seven officers on the panel.  One woman and six  men have been selected for Behenna’s panel.  Four members of the panel are captains.  The other three are field grade officers.  A majority of the panel appears to have combat experience.

The prosecution will present the meat of their case tomorrow.  “Harry” the interpretor, who was with 1LT Behenna at the time of Ali Mansur’s death, is expected to testify.  He is expected to testify to witnessing Ali Mansur getting shot.  Strange as it may seem, if “Harry” follows his pattern from the Article 32 hearing, he will testify as the interpretor through an interpretor.  After “Harry” is done testifying, SSG Mitch Warner is expected to be the final witness in the prosecutions case.  He will also testify as an eye witness to the events that took place in the desert.

Jack Zimmerman, the civilian defense counsel for 1LT Behenna, vigorously fought any characterization of Ali Mansur’s death with the words “homicide” and “crime” today.  His defense team lodged several objections to the prosecutions characterizations of the death with any words that resembled a crime.  The argument may have seemed to be one of semantics to the panel, but the defense clearly was sending a message with the objections that they were objecting to the prosecutions entire case.  They are trying to focus the panel on the idea that this may have been a lawful killing.  They also do not want to have the panel  prejudge Behenna prior to them being able to put on their defense.

The defense will begin presenting evidence probably this Thursday.  They will probably follow up with their promises made during opening arguments, which will mean that they will put evidence on that will demonstrate that 1LT Behenna was not thinking clearly at the time of the killing.  They will also probably put on evidence showing that Ali Mansur may have been a suspected terrorist.

CPT Johnston, 1LT Behenna’s acting commander during the investigation, testified today regarding his preliminary investigation into the death of Ali Mansur. After his testimony, the panel presented the military judge with several written questions.  The questions presented by the panel were very thoughtful and seemed defense oriented.

The prosecution brought several witnesses to testify from Iraq.  The Iraqis testified through an interpretor. 

There were several journalists in the audience, but overall, the case has not drawn the media attention it probably deserves.