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Thursday, April 08, 2004

Today, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) handed down an opinion in U.S. v. Adams, a case involving ineffective assistance of counsel. The case involves an Army Specialist who was convicted of rape and adultery. At trial, he contested the voluntariness of his confession. He wished to assign error to the trial military judge's refusal to exclude the confession, and hired a civilian lawyer to represent him before the Army Court of Criminal Appeals. Unfortunately, the civilian lawyer never confirmed that the military lawyer (you always keep your military lawyer even if you hire a civilian lawyer as lead counsel) actually filed the appeal after he sent it over e-mail. To make matters worse, the civilian lawyer and the two subsequent military lawyers never communicated to each other or tried to fix the mistake. Pretty ineffective, right? NO. CAAF held that for many reasons, the error did not rise to the level of "ineffective assistance of counsel."

According to the Supreme Court as laid out in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), the claim of ineffective assistance of counsel has two components. First, a convictee must prove both deficient performance and prejudice. To the court's credit, they correctly pointed out that after the trial judge allowed the confession in, the defendant pled guilty in a provident manner, thereby waiving the ability to challenge the ruling on appeal. Since the ruling could not be challenged, and that was the only assignment of error that was raised on appeal to CAAF, the court had no choice but to find that there was no prejudice. If the court had stopped there, everything would be fine.

Unfortunately, Judge Erdmann included some truly troubling dicta that threatens to erode the court's jurisprudence on ineffective assistance of counsel, only days after the Army Court of Criminal Appeals ruled the other way in the Fort Bragg Ranger Murder death penalty case. First, the court suggests that simply because a military lawyer was assigned, and because he filed some cursory paperwork, that this was effective assistance:

Addressing those facts, we said, “Where, as in this case, appellate counsel do nothing, an appellant has been effectively deprived of counsel, and prejudice is presumed.” May, 47 M.J. at 481.

Adams, however, was not wholly unrepresented before the Court of Criminal Appeals. At all times he had detailed military appellate defense counsel who undertook various actions in the case. The initial military counsel communicated with Mr. Cassara, ascertained that Mr. Cassara would represent Adams before the Army court and thereafter filed several motions for continuance. The next military counsel did not contact Adams or Mr. Cassara, but did file three motions for continuance.

Frankly, the notion that simply filing motions of continuance equates to effective assistance of counsel is troubling, especially considering the horrific performance of the attorneys in this case. It certainly comes closer to "doing nothing" than it does to actively defending the client.

Second, the court (as have previous courts in case after case) relies heavily on the Strickland v. Washington doctrine, developing a body of case law that largely parallels that of the various civilian Courts of Appeal. This alone should be cause for concern. Civilian courts have been very hostile to ineffective assistance of counsel claims. Military appeals courts face a different set of public policies. Military members "ha[ve been] provided . . . with counsel rights broader than those available to their civilian counterparts . . . [because of the] unique nature of military life, in which members are subject to worldwide assignment and involuntary deployment under circumstances when civilian counsel are not readily available." U.S. v. Spriggs, 52 M.J. 235, 237 (C.A.A.F. 2000). Military members receive rights greater than civilian defendants in the areas of rights warnings and pretrial discovery. In the realm of counsel, military members receive military counsel regardless of the ability the pay, unlike the civilian arena where you only get one if you can't afford an attorney, and only at the "critical stage." Given this background of broad rights, and after the Army Court's opinion two weeks ago in Kreutzer, why would CAAF write such dicta? Why doesn't the court depart from civilian jurisprudence (a doctrine that is almost uniformly assailed by the academic community) and fulfill the promise of the UCMJ in guaranteeing truly effective assistance of counsel?