Saturday, November 14, 2009

Day Of Judgement for Webster Smith.

Those who were not present on Tuesday, November 10, 2009 at the

United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (USCAAF)

450 E Street, Northwest

Washington, D.C. 20442-0001

for the oral arguments in the case of United States v. Webster M. Smith, Case No. 08-0719/CG, missed a real burn-burner.

The judges of the USCAAF are civilian judges and sit as a single panel on all cases. Typically, all five judges participate in each case. The judges came out firing questions fast and furious to the two Appellate Attorneys. The first one up was Counsel for Webster Smith: Ronald C. Machen, Esquire. He was prepared and completely unflappable. He responded to every question put to him. When he was interrupted in mid sentence, he did not forge on and try to finish his thought; he immediately responded to the Judge's question. He gave reasoned responsive answers to every question. Some judges fired hard ball questions, and one judge even offer up a soft-ball question which was answered in the same serious manner.

Then came Counsel for U S Coast Guard: LT Emily P. Reuter, USCG. She had a cold or was recovering from the Swine Flu and began by pleading for leniency because of her weakened voice. It was downhill from there for her. She did not appear to give responsive answers to most of the questions put to her. She may have not even clearly understood some of the question before she attempted to respond to them. Frequently she appeared to retreat to her notes or her brief and read the holdings from cases that she had cited in her brief. Perhaps this was her first time arguing before the court or maybe this was a case that no one else wanted to argue, but there surely was not her finest hour.

This was an appeal from a General Court-Martial (GCM) conviction for going from place of duty, attempting to disobey an order, sodomy, extortion, and indecent assault. The ISSUE on Appeal was whether the military judge at the court-martial at the Coast Guard Academy violated Webster Smith’s constitutional right to confront his accusers by limiting his cross-examination of Shelley Roddenbush [SR], the government’s only witness, on three of the five charges.

Counsel for each side was allowed 20 minutes to present oral argument in the case.

The judges of the USCAAF are Judge Andrew S. Effron is the Chief Judge. The other four judges are Judge James E. Baker, Judge Charles E. “Chip” Erdmann, Judge Scott W. Stucky, and Judge Margaret A. Ryan, the most recent appointee.

The first issue that they tackled was the jurisdictional issue. The Coast Guard Court of Criminal Appeals had denied a request for reconsideration on 14 May 2008. It was not clear whether this was in the Appellate Record. There was a question of how many days had elapsed from the notification of the denial to Webster Smith's attorney and the date that Attorney Machen filed his appeal to the USCAAF. The Coast Guard had sent the Notice of Denial via DHL, a German company, rather than simply using the U. S. Mail as required by the Rules of Court. Apparently there are two time periods that may be relevant under Article 67(B) of the USCAAF's Rules. One is a 61 day rule and the other is a 95 day rule.

They kept coming back to this jurisdictional issue again and again. I do not think they hammered it out definitively during the hearing. Webster Smith's attorney said that it is not in the Record that he was notified on 14 May. LT Emily P. Reuter for the USCG said that it was in the Record. I am sure the USCAAF judges will settled the issue before they issue a decision.

This is troubling because I would hate for the judges to dodge the ISSUE on Appeal because of a technicality like jurisdiction. I could hear a couple of the judges contemplating doing just that. The tone and the tenor of the questions leads me to just that conclusion. It would be a shame after all this time and effort to be cheated out of a hard and definitive decision on the ultimate ISSUE.

That being said, it is my reasoned opinion that the judges of the USCAAF are poised to reverse the conviction of Webster Smith. I feel there is better than a 60-40% chance that they will reverse the conviction by a majority vote. Also, there is a 51-49% chance of a unanimous decision.

I think Judge Ryan is a swing vote. She gave Attorney Machen the hardest time. If at all possible she might do like Judge Lane I. McClelland of the Coast Guard Court of Criminal Appeals and uphold the status quo. However, I do not think she would go out on a limb and write a dissenting opinion. If the other four judges split 2-2, I think she might side with the judges who determine that a reversal is warranted because the Trial Judge abused his discretion and committed reversible error.

Judge Baker appears most eager to reverse this conviction because Webster Smith was denied his right to a fair trial. He sees this as a fair trial issue. He believes that the trial court members had a right to know what the secret was that SR wanted Webster Smith to keep, that it was of a sexual nature, that she had recently lied about it being nonconsensual when it was really consensual oral sex with an enlisted man in Norfolf, Virginia. Also, SR wanted Webster Smith to go out and lie for her so badly that she was willing to pay him with sexual favors.

Judge Baker feels this was crucial evidence that the members were entitled to know. The exact nature of the secret was crucial to Webster Smith's defense. The Trial Judge relied upon Rule 412 of the Military Rules of Evidence and allowed into evidence only the fact that Webster Smith was privy to a secret that SR wanted him to keep; and that secret concerned something that could ruin her cadet and officer career in the Coast Guard.

Even though Judge Baker is a civilian, he might have served in the military. He pointed out that there are lots of secrets that can harm one's career. It could be a secret concerning having failed a physical training exercise; or, it could be a secret involving a wardrobe or a uniform violation. The members had no way of knowing the precise nature of the secret since the trial judge protected SR from more rigorous cross-examination. They did not know that when SR was faced with rumors she lied to limit her own culpability. Giving a limiting instruction to the members was not sufficient to cure the error. It was more than harmless error. It was big, earth shaking, reversible error. It violated the Sixth Amendment of the U. S. Constitution.

As Attorney Machen so eloquently stated, SR had used the secret as a sword and a shield. It shielded her from testifying at the Article 32 investigation, and it was the sword that she used at trial to stab Webster Smith through the heart. It killed him and his career in the Coast Guard. It is what the judges referred to as the Theory of Innoculation. The secret had innoculated SR from two investigations. It saved her from testifying at the Article 32 Investigation.

LT Emily P. Reuter wanted to argue that this was not a Fair Trial issue, but it was a pattern or practice issue. As such the Trial Judge was correct to limit cross-examination of SR to stop any evidence from coming in concerning her prior sexual history or her propensity to tell lies. She argued that the Defense's Theory of the case at trial was wrong for the evidence that they were trying to elicit, and that the Trial Judge correctly used Rule 412. If he erred, it was no more than harmless error. It was not Reversible Error. She was not persuasive.

Truth crushed to earth shall rise again. The essence of truth in this case is finally coming to the surface. From where I sit, the USCAAF stands ready to right a gigantic wrong. It wants to reconsecrate the Temple of Justice in the Coast Guard. It wants to heal the wound that was inflicted on the Sixth Amendment by the trial court and the Coast Guard Court of Criminal Appeals.

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