Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces dismisses Army soldier’s conviction for manslaughter and sends the case back twice to the Army Court of Criminal Appeals for a new sentence.
Private (PVT) Bennitt, who was accused of distributing and using drugs and was accused of manslaughter because his girlfriend overdosed and died on drugs, has had several reviews of his case by military appellate courts. During his original court-martial, PVT Bennitt pled guilty to four specifications of distribution of drugs and three specifications of wrongful use of drugs. He pled not guilty to the manslaughter charge involving his girlfriend. The military judge at his court-martial found him guilty of the charges he pled guilty to, as well as the manslaughter charge. PVT Bennitt appealed to the Army Court of Criminal Appeals (ACCA). ACCA affirmed the court-martial findings and sentence. PVT Bennitt appealed again to the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF). This time PVT Bennitt was successful. CAAF found that the evidence was insufficient for a finding of guilty to the manslaughter charge and ordered ACCA to reassess the sentence that PVT Bennitt received at his court-martial. ACCA reassessed the sentence but decided not to change it at all. PVT Bennitt was still given a 70 month confinement sentence along with reduction to E-1, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and a dishonorable discharge even though he was no longer guilty of manslaughter. ACCA reasoned that his girlfriend’s death could still be used as aggravation evidence at his court-martial based on a distribution to her and therefore the sentence was still appropriate. CAAF recently reviewed ACCA’s decision not to change PVT Bennitt’s sentence and disagreed with them. CAAF ruled that ACCA could not consider the death of PVT Bennitt’s girlfriend as aggravation because the court-martial record showed that PVT Bennitt was not actually convicted of distributing to his girlfriend. He was originally charged with distributing on diverse occasions on 14 and 15 February 2009. At his court-martial, PVT Bennitt pled guilty to and was convicted of distributing to three soldiers on 14 February 2009, not 15 February 2009 (the date of his girlfriend’s death). Additionally, he did not testify that he distributed to his girlfriend. The military judge at his court-martial found him guilty of manslaughter of his girlfriend, but CAAF dismissed this charge on appeal. In reviewing ACCA’s failure to change the sentence based on the elimination of the manslaughter conviction, CAAF held, “while Appellant no doubt did distribute oxymorphone to [his girlfriend], as he himself admitted, that ‘distribution’ was presented as the means by which he was guilty of the Article 119, UCMJ, manslaughter offense, which this Court vacated. Contrary to the CCA’s conclusion, the Article 112a, UCMJ, conviction did not include distribution of oxymorphone to [his girlfriend].” In other words, ACCA was wrong to conclude that the evidence regarding the death of PVT Bennitt’s girlfriend could be considered aggravation evidence because PVT Bennitt was not specifically convicted of distributing to her. PVT Bennitt made a specific plea at his court-martial and he never gave up on his appeal rights. His persistence paid off. How you decide to plead at your court-martial and how you pursue your appeal really matters. If you or your loved one is facing a court-martial or wants to appeal a court-martial, you or your loved one needs someone with experience by their side at both the court-martial and the appeal. I have a lot of experience with court-martials and court-martial appeals. Call me today. To speak to an experienced court-martial and military defense attorney, call Bill Cassara at 706-860-5769 for a free consultation.