A decorated Marine colonel sentenced to five and a half years behind bars in 2017 for sexually abusing a six-year-old girl has had his conviction overturned by a military appeals court.
Col. Daniel Wilson, 58, had previously been fired from his post as operations officer for II Marine Expeditionary Force out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, amid an investigation into allegations he sexually assaulted the young children of a subordinate at the unit. When he went to trial in September 2017, he faced charges of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman for various instances of crude, alcohol-fueled behavior during a short stint as a liaison officer in Darwin Australia; and additional charges of sexual assault against another officer's wife at Camp Lejeune.
After a 10-day trial at Lejeune and more than eight hours of deliberation, Wilson was found guilty of the unbecoming charges and one count of abuse of a child, but acquitted on the other charges. He had already spent 240 days in the Camp Lejeune brig at the time he was sentenced.
The 57-page opinion, decided on July 1 and obtained by Military.com, focused on the testimony of the six-year-old girl, and inconclusive follow-up examinations to determine sexual assault.
The girl's family had become close to Wilson and his wife after the father, a Marine major, had executed orders to Camp Lejeune in 2016. During a two-week period that summer, the families spent time together on multiple occasions. Wilson was observed drinking heavily on evenings the family spent at his house, and spent time unsupervised with the six-year-old, one of the family's three children. He also showed up unannounced at the family's house on two early-morning occasions.
The families' friendship blew up July 13, 2016, when the girl allegedly told her mother that Wilson had touched her private parts, saying it had "burned, stung and hurt." The mother publicly accused Wilson that night and the family abruptly departed, calling military police later the same evening to file a report.
Examinations on the child, known by initials BP in the appellate opinion, did not prove or disprove sexual assault and DNA tests were similarly inconclusive, by the appellate court's standards.
"Having carefully considered the evidence presented at trial, and taking into account 'the fact that the trial court saw and heard the witnesses,' we are not convinced of the appellant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," the opinion, delivered for the court by Senior Judge Navy Cmdr. Angela Tang, found.
The child's testimony, given to investigators and later in court, they found inconsistent. The judges noted that BP testified at trial and in a March 2017 forensic re-interview that she had been inappropriately touched only once, but said upon repeated questioning in July 2016 that the touching had happened on six occasions. Inconsistencies also existed, they found, in BP's accounts of when the abuse occurred -- on the night of the disclosure or on other occasions when Wilson had greater opportunity to be alone with her.
In some descriptions the girl gave of Wilson cupping his hand between her legs to "scoot" her up on his chest, the appellate judges said they could not be convinced such contact, if it occurred, was intentional and done for the purposes of sexual gratification, as mentioned in the charges.
"On every important aspect of the alleged offense -- if abuse happened; when it happened; how many times it happened; and what happened -- BP was inconsistent in non-trivial ways that cannot solely be attributed to her young age," the court found. "BP's statements are the only evidence of the appellant's guilt."
Also addressed were factors including the suggestibility of young children and questions put to BP by her mother and investigators that may have affected her responses.
Evidence was another issue. During the deeply emotional court-martial, during which all three children and two parents testified, BP's parents talked about how altered their young daughter was, even a year following the alleged assault.
"[She] gets into these moods where, if she gets anxious ... or angry, she has to go and hide. We call these her moments," the major said. "We have to 'love her through it' -- go to her hiding spot, talk to her about why she's upset, why she's angry."
Citing a government expert, the appeals court suggested those responses could be a result of the child's concept of events, beginning with "disclosure night" "in which a social evening abruptly ended with cursing, shouting, a threat to stab the appellant, and a police visit to the [family's] home." Trauma-based therapy that followed and the behavior of the girl's parents could have also factored in, they suggested.
"We do not believe that any changes in BP's behavior constitute sufficient proof of the appellant's guilt as to overcome the other infirmities in the evidence," the court found.
The judges noted, as well, that Wilson did not concede guilt at any point -- not even in a surreptitiously recorded call with the major following the initial accusations.
Wilson's original court-martial and conviction, which came after he was fired twice from senior-level posts and highlighted patterns of inappropriate conduct and alcohol abuse, had wide-ranging impacts.
The girl's mother, Adrian Perry, who has publicly spoken about her experiences on numerous occasions since the conviction, filed a $25 million lawsuit against the Marine Corps in 2018, saying Wilson's boorish behavior in Australia -- where one officer described him as "a predator" should have led to accountability actions before he came to Camp Lejeune.
Reached for comment, Perry referred Military.com to the organization Protect Our Defenders, which assisted with her lawsuit.
Don Christensen, a retired Air Force colonel and former service head prosecutor, called the overturn a "gut punch."
He noted that the ability of the NMCCA to find insufficient evidence was a unique property of the service-level military appeals courts that essentially makes "the appellate judge the 13th juror."
"They decided they were going to relitigate the case, which unfortunately the law allows them to do," Christensen said. "It’s an archaic, unique authority that military courts have purely because of distrust in the commander-controlled system. And the person paying the price in this case is the family and little girls."
In the fallout from the case, the then-commanding general of III Marine Expeditionary Force in the Pacific, Lt. Gen. Larry Nicholson, was found to have failed to investigate Wilson's actions in Australia fully and received a career-ending reprimand.
A senior official close to events in Darwin who spoke to Military.com described Wilson's behavior as troubling.
"Service discrediting is not strong enough [to describe Wilson's actions]," he said. "It eats at me because it goes against everything the Marine Corps stands for."
The dramatic decision to dismiss Wilson's sexual abuse conviction with prejudice sets in motion a series of events that could soon see him a free man. The government has 30 days from July 1 to decide whether to ask NMCCA for reconsideration and 60 days to decide whether to recertify it to the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the next-highest appeals court, although a military law expert said neither scenario is likely.
If neither option is taken at the end of 60 days, the case will return to the original convening authority at II MEF for a rehearing, only on the original charges of conduct unbecoming and a count of unauthorized absence. Wilson, who was to be dismissed from the Marine Corps as part of his sentence and made to register as a sex offender, now may have the option instead to pursue military retirement with benefits.
Wilson still remains at the brig at Camp Pendleton, California, his civilian defense attorney, Phil Stackhouse, told Military.com Tuesday. Stackhouse said Wilson will also likely receive back pay for the nearly two years he has spent in confinement.
"His wife and daughters, they have not had the opportunity to talk to Dan yet," Stackhouse said. "They're very happy and elated ... he's going to have the opportunity to fight for his retirement now."
-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.