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Supreme Court Reverses CAAF on Statute of Limitations in Military Rape Cases

From 1986 to 2006, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) listed several offenses as eligible for the death penalty. One of those offenses was rape of an adult. The UCMJ stated that offenses “punishable by death” had no statute of limitations. This meant that these types of cases could be brought to trial at any time. All other offenses had to be brought to trial within five years of the commission of the alleged offense. However, in 1977 the United States Supreme Court had determined that the offense of rape of an adult was not eligible for the death penalty in Coker v. Georgia. This created a frequently litigated question regarding the statute of limitations for rape offenses in the military.

In 2018 and 2019, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) decided the cases of United States v. Mangahas and United States v. Briggs. In these two cases, CAAF reversed long-standing decisions to find that because rape was not “punishable by death” in light of Coker v. Georgia, servicemembers accused of rapes occurring between 1986 and 2006 were subject to the five-year statute of limitations.   This blog wrote about these cases and the history associated with them here.

As a result of these cases, at least three servicemembers had convictions reversed. The Government appealed CAAF’s decision in these cases to the United States Supreme Court. We discussed this appeal here. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and issued its opinion in United States v. Briggs on December 10, 2020.

The Supreme Court’s holding in Briggs reversed CAAF’s decision. Instead of focusing on whether the offense was actually punishable by death, the Supreme Court looked at Congress’ intent in drafting the language. The Court determined that Congress intended to use the term “punishable by death” as a term of art to describe the class of offenses it wished to exclude from the five-year statute of limitations. Whether those offenses actually were punishable by death, was not the important factor. The Government is now free to bring servicemembers accused of rape offenses alleged to have occurred between 1986 to 2006 to trial.

If you or your loved one is facing a court-martial or is appealing a court-martial conviction, you need someone with experience who knows the rules and the system. I have the experience you need. Please call Bill Cassara at (706) 445-2915 for a free consultation.

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