Court of Appeals Holds That Victim Impact Presentation Did Not Prejudice Servicemember

The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces recently decided the case of United States v. Cunningham. Senior Airman Cunningham was convicted of murdering his infant son. He was sentenced to eighteen years confinement, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, reduction to E-1, and a dishonorable discharge.

During the sentencing proceedings, the baby’s mother and grandmother testified about the impact of the baby’s injuries and death on their lives. Additionally, as the court-appointed representative of the deceased child, the mother presented a separate victim impact statement. This statement consisted of a PowerPoint slideshow that contained pictures, videos, and somber music. The child’s mother orally addressed the military judge while the slideshow played.

The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces had previously decided the case of United States v. Edwards in 2022. In Edwards, a similar victim impact statement was offered. There, the Court determined that the use of a multimedia presentation was improper under the rule. Rule for Courts-Martial 1001 allows for victim impact statements that are “oral, written, or both.” The pictures, music, videos, and animation in the type of presentation given in Edwards did not qualify as either oral or written statements and fell, therefore, outside of the rule.

When SrA Cunningham’s case was appealed to the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals, the Court applied the ruling from Edwards and found that the victim impact statement in Cunningham’s case was also improperly considered. However, the Court determined that the error did not prejudice SrA Cunningham and affirmed the sentence.

SrA Cunningham appealed the Air Force decision to the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. This Court applied the Edwards decision and also found that the multimedia presentation exceeded what was allowed by the rules. The Court then turned to its prejudice analysis. It found that the Government’s sentencing case was strong and that the slideshow presentation was neither material to the sentencing proceedings or of a quality to influence the sentencing authority. SrA Cunningham was sentenced by the military judge, who is presumed to know and follow the law.

So, although the presentation should not have been admitted, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces did not disturb the sentence in this case, finding that the error did not substantially influence SrA Cunningham’s sentence. The Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision was affirmed.

If you or your loved one is facing a court-martial or wants to appeal a court-martial conviction, you need someone with experience who knows the law. I have the experience you need. Please call Bill Cassara at (706) 445-2943 for a free consultation.

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