Supreme Court Set to Hear Arguments in Military Rape Cases

The Supreme Court is seen under stormy skies in Washington.
In this June 20, 2019, file photo, the Supreme Court is seen under stormy skies in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Tuesday over a military court ruling that reversed several rape convictions of military personnel for crimes that occurred between 1986 and 2006.

The case, United States v. Briggs, is the consolidation of three criminal cases involving service members convicted in the past six years but whose cases were overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, or CAAF, which ruled the statute of limitations in their cases had expired and they couldn't be prosecuted for their alleged crimes.

Read Next: Why the USS Cole's Commander Pushed to Keep his Crew Together After Deadly Bombing

In 2014, Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Briggs was convicted of raping another service member, a staff sergeant, in 2005. Seven years after the crime, Briggs called the victim to apologize, saying in the conversation that he would "always be sorry for raping" her.

The victim recorded the admission, which was used as evidence to bring Briggs to trial. He was found guilty, sentenced to five months' confinement and dismissed from the service.

At the time of Briggs' proceedings, the crime of rape had no statute of limitations under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, as Congress had abolished the time limit for such cases in 2006.

But for a 20-year period, from 1986 to 2006, the standard five-year time limit for most crimes was instituted in most cases of rape -- the result of a 1998 decision by CAAF that negated a previous statute in the UCMJ that held rape was a crime punishable by death and, therefore, no time limit existed for prosecuting cases.

Briggs' conviction, as well as the others in the consolidated case, came after the law had been changed to remove the statute of limitations. But his crime was committed during the five-year time-limit period.

In February 2018, in a case known as United States v. Mangahas, the military appeals court affirmed the statute of limitations for cases that occurred during this gray area of the law.

Briggs appealed his conviction based on that 2018 decision and won, as did the defendants in two other military rape cases rolled under the Briggs case -- those of Air Force Master Sgt. Richard Collins, who raped an airman in 2000, and Air Force Lt. Col. Humphrey Daniels, convicted of raping a woman in Minot, North Dakota, in 1998.

In those cases, the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals cited the Mangahas case in overturning the service members' rape convictions and dismissing the charges. Those rulings were affirmed by CAAF. The Justice Department, however, brought the cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Briggs and Mangahas decisions already have resulted in at least 10 other military rape cases being dismissed, including the U.S. Army's case against retired Army Maj. Gen. James Grazioplene, accused in 2015 of sexually assaulting his teenage daughter between 1983 and 1989.

Grazioplene was prosecuted in a civilian court in Virginia, where he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years' probation after spending 18 months in jail.

Sexual assault and harassment has been a longstanding problem in the U.S. military and is under a microscope this year following the death of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen, who was killed in April at Fort Hood, Texas. She allegedly told family members and friends she was being sexually harassed by a fellow soldier.

Cases of sexual assault have risen in the military in the past several years, from 4,794 in 2016 to 6,053 in 2018. In 2019, based on a troop survey, there were 7,825 sexual assaults involving a service member as a victim or subject, according to Pentagon data.

In petitioning the Supreme Court to consider Briggs, U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco called rape "devastating to the morale, discipline and effectiveness of our armed forces."

He argued, however, that the Briggs and Mangahas decisions by "CAAF ... closed the door on prosecuting rapes that occurred before 2006 -- even admitted rapes."

"That result contravenes the statutory text, Congress' evident intent to root out and punish military rape, and the military's constitutional latitude to punish military crimes more strictly than civilian ones," Francisco added.

Among those watching the proceedings will be Harmony Allen, the airman raped by Collins, and representatives from Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for military sexual assault victims that penned an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court protesting the CAAF decisions.

"The Supreme Court has the power to restore justice to victims whose rapists were properly convicted at court-martial. I hope they make the right choice. Their decision will have a profound effect on addressing the culture of rape and sexual assault in the military moving forward," said retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, the organization's president..

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

Related: Despite Efforts, Sexual Assaults up Nearly 40% in the US Military

Story Continues