Court Upholds Conviction Despite Involuntary Statements

A Marine Sergeant’s conviction was recently upheld by the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals. In United States v. Champion-Flores, the Court found that the Military Judge should have suppressed statements made by the Sergeant. However, the Court determined that this error was not prejudicial to the Sergeant and affirmed his conviction.

Servicemembers have a Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves. Article 31 of the UCMJ and Military Rules of Evidence (MRE) 304 and 305 require that someone who suspects a servicemember of a crime has to first notify him of the accusation and then inform him of his right to remain silent and that any statements will be used against him before beginning any questioning. Any statements made in violation of these rules is considered involuntary.

Here, Sergeant Champion-Flores was accused of sexually assaulting a female Lance Corporal from his unit. Upon learning of the allegation, two other Sergeants confronted Sergeant Champion-Flores. He denied any sexual contact with the Lance Corporal to the Sergeants. The Sergeants both testified to his statements at trial. The defense objected, but the Military Judge allowed them to be introduced. Sergeant Champion-Flores was convicted of three specifications of sexual assault.

On appeal, the Navy-Marine Corps Court found that the Sergeants did suspect Sergeant Champion-Flores of an offense. Although he knew what they were questioning him about, they did not advise him of his right to remain silent or that his statements could be used against him. The Court determined that the Military Judge should have kept the statements out of the trial.

However, this finding of error was not the end of the analysis. There are two kinds of involuntary statements: 1) those that are involuntary because they were made in violation of MRE 305; and 2) those that are coerced and truly given involuntarily. The Court found that Sergeant Champion-Flores was not coerced into making his statements, but that they were involuntary only because they were made in violation of MRE 305. As a result, the Court next considered whether the introduction of these statements actually prejudiced Sergeant Champion-Flores.

In order to determine whether this error was prejudicial, the Court looked at four factors: 1) the strength of the Government’s case; 2) the strength of the defense’s case; 3) the materiality of the erroneously admitted statements; and 4) the quality of the erroneously admitted statements. The Court found that the Government’s case was strong–the victim had immediately reported the sexual assault, DNA evidence supported her account, and Sergeant Champion-Flores’ story changed several times. It found the defense’s case weak–he claimed at trial that the victim consented or that he reasonably believed that she had, which contradicted his previous denials. Finally, the Court found the statements were not materially or qualitatively important to the Sergeant’s conviction because he had made similar statements to NCIS during the investigation. The Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the Sergeant’s convictions for sexual assault based upon this finding.

If you or your loved one 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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