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CAAF Sets Aside Sentence in Case After Improper Argument by Prosecutors

The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces [CAAF] released a decision in United States v. Norwood on February 24, 2021.

Petty Officer Norwood’s niece alleged that he had sexually abused her. At trial, the prosecutors made several improper and inflammatory arguments to the members. Prosecutors can make strong arguments on the state of the evidence and in rebuttal to the defense arguments, but they cannot overstep the bounds of propriety and fairness required of Government prosecutors. In Petty Officer Norwood’s case, the prosecutors overstepped on several occasions.

The improper arguments included a statement that the defense argument about reasonable doubt gave “child molesters a license to commit these crimes.” The prosecutors also repeatedly vouched for the alleged victim’s credibility and claimed that her family believed her allegations. In sentencing, the prosecutors asked the members to consider what would happen when they returned to their command and told other servicemembers that the accused had gotten no punishment for his offense. The members sentenced Petty Officer Norwood to 18 months confinement, reduction to E-1, and a dishonorable discharge.

Our firm initially appealed this case to the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals. Because the defense counsel at trial had not objected to most of the improper argument, the Court had to find not only that an error had been committed, but that the error created an unfair prejudicial effect on the members’ deliberations. The service court found error, holding that the prosecutor’s arguments were improper. However, the Court determined that these arguments had not had a prejudicial effect on the members’ deliberations. The Court affirmed the findings and sentence.

Petty Officer Norwood petitioned the CAAF to review the Navy-Marine Corps Court’s opinion. CAAF granted his petition and heard the case in October 2020. In its decision, the CAAF agreed with the lower court that the prosecutors’ arguments were improper. While the CAAF also agreed that the arguments on findings did not affect Petty Officer Norwood’s trial, the Court held that the sentencing arguments did have a prejudicial effect. The CAAF determined that “the trial counsel’s egregious attempt to pressure the members resulted in a reasonable probability that the sentence adjudged was greater than it would have been otherwise.” The CAAF set aside Petty Officer Norwood’s sentence and sent the case back for a new sentencing hearing.

If you or your loved one is facing a court-martial or is appealing a court-martial conviction, you need someone with experience who knows the rules and the system. I have the experience you need. Please call Bill Cassara at (706) 445-2915 for a free consultation.

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