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The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces Reverses Itself on the Statute of Limitations in Rape Cases

Article 43(a) of the UCMJ establishes the statute of limitations for military offenses. The statute of limitations is the timeframe for prosecuting criminal offenses in military courts that applies to a particular offense. From 1986 to 2006, the military had five years from the date of most offenses to charge someone with that offense. The exception was that an offense punishable by death did not have a limitation and therefore could be tried at any time. When this provision went into effect, the offense of rape found in Article 120 carried with it the possibility of the death penalty. Based upon the plain language of Articles 43 and 120, rape was an offense that carried no limitations on when it could be tried.

However, back in 1977, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Coker v. Georgia. The Supreme Court held that the death penalty for rape of an adult woman violates the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Despite this holding, the UCMJ continued to list the death penalty as a possible punishment for the offense of rape.

The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces addressed this inconsistency in 1998 in a case called Willenbring v. Neurauter and again in 2005 in United States v. Stebbins. In both cases, the Court found that Article 43(a) still allowed rape offenses to be tried without a time limitation even though the death penalty could not apply after Coker v. Georgia. Based upon these rulings, the Government continued to bring rape charges against servicemembers well past the five year limitation.

In 2006, Article 43(a) was changed and it expressly stated that the offense of rape can be tried at any time without limitation.

In the last year, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces has reexamined its holdings in Willenbring and Stebbins and has now come to a different conclusion. The first case was United States v. Mangahas, decided in 2018. In this case, an Air Force lieutenant colonel had been charged in 2015 for raping a fellow cadet at the Coast Guard Academy in 1997. In its decision, the Court reversed its old rulings and held that because the offense of rape was not actually punishable by death after Coker was decided, the statute of limitations for rape offenses allegedly committed between 1986 until 2006 was five years. Lt Col Mangahas’ conviction was reversed.

Last week, the Court decided the case of United States v. Briggs, and answered another question related to Article 43(a). In this case, an Air Force lieutenant colonel was charged in 2014 with the rape of an Airman First Class in 2005. The Court held that although Article 43(a) changed to specifically list rape as an offense with no statute of limitations in 2006, that the change did not apply retroactively to offenses that were still within the five years when the change was made. The Court’s holding was based upon a presumption that changes in law do not apply retroactively unless the legislation itself shows that it is intended to do so. The language of Article 43(a) that appeared in 2006 did not include any reference to a retroactive application, so the Court limited its application to offenses that occurred after the change. Lt Col Briggs’ conviction was reversed.

If you or your loved one was convicted of an offense that you think is affected by these new cases, you need someone with experience who knows the law. I have argued this issue, and numerous others in front of appellate courts and CAAF. I have the experience you need. Please contact Bill Cassara at (706) 860-5769 for a free consultation.

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