Navy-Marine Corps Appellate Court Explains Need for New Trial in Catfishing Case

In March 2024, the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals decided the case of United States v. Colletti. The Court set aside the guilty plea to wire fraud in a case where the accused had used images of women to encourage other women he met online to send him intimate photos of themselves. The Navy-Marine Corps Court’s decision was based upon a Supreme Court case that was issued after SSgt Colletti had pled guilty. The Supreme Court clarified that in order for the wire fraud statute to be violated, the person committing the fraud must be trying to obtain money or physical property. Items such as intimate photos no longer were considered “property” for purposes of this statute. The guilty plea to wire fraud could not stand and the Navy-Marine Corps Court set aside all of the guilty findings and the sentence in SSgt Colletti’s case. We discussed the decision in greater detail here.

The Navy-Marine Corps Court recently revisited the case at the Government’s request. The Government did not challenge the reversal of the wire fraud conviction, as the Supreme Court’s decision was clear. However, the Government asked the Court to preserve the guilty findings to the two other charges and to reevaluate the sentence instead of setting everything aside and sending it back to the Convening Authority for new proceedings.

The Navy-Marine Corps Court issued its new decision this month. The Court determined that under the new rules regulating military plea agreements, it could not preserve the other guilty findings and reassess the sentence.

Before the Military Justice Act of 2016 took effect, a Convening Authority and an accused would enter into an agreement for the accused to plead guilty to certain offenses. In exchange for these guilty pleas, the Convening Authority would agree to suspend or disapprove punishment above a certain agreed upon amount. The Military Judge taking the plea and awarding the sentence was unaware of the limits in the agreement and the accused could receive a sentence below the limits agreed upon with the Convening Authority and “beat the deal.”

Under the new rules established by the Act, the Government and an accused agree on a specific sentence or sentence range, which the Military Judge is aware of and must award. Here, the agreement between SSgt Colletti and the Convening Authority had encompassed all three offenses to which SSgt Colletti had pled guilty, including the wire fraud offense, and set a single sentence for the judge to award.

In other cases, plea agreements will have the agreed upon sentence segmented by offense. In those cases, when only one offense is set aside, it is easy for an appellate court to affirm the remaining agreed upon segments. Here, the agreed upon single sentence for all three offenses made that impossible.

Also, the Court found that because the wire fraud charge was the central issue to the case, setting it aside negated the agreement entirely. Upholding the plea agreement when the most important aspect of that agreement was no longer a part of it would violate basic tenents of contract law.

The Court again provided the same remedy as in its original decision. All of the guilty findings and the entire sentence were set aside and the case was returned to the Convening Authority. The two parties are free to create a new agreement with the remaining offenses, but the original plea agreement is void.

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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