Navy-Marine Court of Criminal Appeals reverses conviction despite finding appellant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
On August 17, 2017, the Navy-Marine Court of Criminal Appeals (NMCCA) reversed the conviction of Navy Specialist Prince Wiredu in United States v. Wiredu. In this case, Specialist Wiredu was accused of sexually assaulting three different women. Over the defense’s objection, the prosecution was allowed to use each allegation to prove Specialist Wiredu’s propensity to sexually assault the other women. The military judge then instructed the panel that they could use the allegations to find that he had the propensity to commit the other crimes. The NMCCA found that the military judge erred in allowing the propensity evidence and giving the propensity instruction based on the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) holding in United States v. Hills. In Hills in 2016, CAAF held that if a servicemember is charged with more than one sexual offense in a court-martial, one charge cannot be used as “propensity evidence” to show that one of the other charges occurred. More specifically, the Court held that Military Rule of Evidence (M.R.E.) 413 cannot be used as “a mechanism for admitting evidence of charged conduct to which an accused has pleaded not guilty in order to show a propensity to commit the very same charged conduct. CAAF held the military judge erred in allowing the propensity evidence in Hills and that this error was constitutional error because it “violated appellant’s presumption of innocence and right to have all findings made clearly beyond a reasonable doubt.” Ultimately, in Hills, CAAF held the military judge’s error in giving this instruction was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. In Wiredu, the NMCCA handled their opinion a little differently. The NMCCA stated that the propensity evidence and instruction were error. However, the court then went on to state that “[a]fter weighing all the evidence in the record of trial and recognizing that we did not see or hear the witnesses, we are convinced of the appellant’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt.” Despite declaring that they believed appellant was guilty, the NMCCA still reversed appellant’s conviction. They reversed it because they could not find that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. In other words, there is no way to know for sure if the panel was influenced improperly by the erred propensity instruction. This case shows that despite the appellate courts being convinced of guilt, the courts will still reverse a conviction if an appellant did not receive due process. If you or your loved one is facing a court-martial or want to appeal a court-martial you need someone with experience who knows what to argue on your behalf. I have that experience. Please call me for help. To speak to an experienced court-martial and military defense attorney, call Bill Cassara at 706-860-5769 for a free consultation.