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Sentence Set Aside Over Victim Impact Video

The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces recently released its opinion in United States v. Edwards. Airman First Class Edwards was convicted of the unpremeditated murder of his roommate, Airman Bradley Hale. During sentencing, the Government called both of Airman Hale’s parents to testify about their son and the impact of his death upon his family. Following the Government’s sentencing case, the Military Judge allowed Airman Hale’s father to present an unsworn victim statement. After reading the statement, the Government played two videos as part of the unsworn statement. One of the videos was an interview of Airman Hale’s parents and then a photo slideshow with accompanying music. During sentencing arguments, the Trial Counsel played a particularly poignant portion of the video again. The video, despite not being admitted into evidence, was then allowed to go back with the members for their review during deliberations.

The Manual for Courts-Martial allows crime victims to make unsworn statements describing the impact of the crime as part of the sentencing proceedings. The victim is called to make this statement by the military judge, and not by the Government. The victim cannot be cross-examined on the unsworn statement by either party. The rule states that an unsworn statement may be “oral, written, or both.”

In this case, the defense had objected to the introduction of the video as part of the unsworn statement, arguing that it was not a proper form for the statement, that the photos and music were not “oral” or “written” statements, and that the video had been created by Trial Counsel and was therefore a statement from the Government and not solely from the crime victim.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the defense that this video should not have been presented at trial. The photos and music did not fit the requirement that the unsworn statement be either oral or written. Further, the Trial Counsel’s involvement in the creation of the video made it at least a partial statement by Trial Counsel and not just a statement of Airman Hale’s father. The Court noted that the rules do not allow Government counsel to use the crime victim statement as a means of getting otherwise inadmissible information in front of members.

The Court further found that the presentation of the video was prejudicial to Airman First Class Edwards. The video was crafted to produce an emotional response in the members. The Trial Counsel played a clip again during sentencing, furthering the emotional impact. Finally, the video was then provided to the members during their deliberations. The Court set aside the sentence and sent the case back to the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals to either reassess the sentence or order a new sentencing proceeding.

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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