In a ruling that could change how the U.S. military approaches sexual-assault prosecutions, the top military court threw out a 2012 rape conviction of a Coast Guard enlisted man because the five members of the seven-member jury that convicted him were women, and four of the five held jobs as advocates for victims of sexual assault. In its 5-0 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces slammed the jury selection as unfair “gender-based court stacking” and said that the prosecution was a “stain on the military justice system.”
“The error in this case is both so obvious and so egregious that it adversely affected not only Appellant’s right to a fair trial by an impartial panel, but also the essential fairness and integrity of the military justice system,” said Judge Margaret Ryan in a statement.
In 2012, a court had convicted Coast Guard Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class John Riesbeck of rape, two charges of making false statements, and one charge of communicating indecent language. The jury sentenced him to a three-month incarceration, reduced rank, and dishonorable discharge.
The military has been under pressure to crack down on sexual assault and harassment, Ryan and colleagues noted, while concluding that the prosecutors in this case had overreached and selected a jury that would guarantee a conviction. The judges said that the evidence against the defendant was “weak” and that a more gender-proportionate jury would never have delivered a guilty verdict.
A hearing officer had recommended dismissing the charges at the time, but the admiral overseeing the case overruled him, according to the judges. The judges also said that the defense attorneys had complained about the jury selection but that the trial judge “failed to conduct even a rudimentary investigation” into the validity of their complaints.