FARGO — The U.S. Supreme Court will decide if there is no time limit in pursuing criminal charges for military rape allegations that are more than 15 years old, including one from a North Dakota Air Force Base.
Justices heard on Tuesday, Oct. 13, arguments revolving around the conviction of three airmen, including Air Force Lt. Col. Humphrey Daniels III. He was sentenced in 2017 to three years in prison for raping a 29-year-old college student in 1998 in Minot, N.D., when he was stationed at Minot Air Force Base.
At question is whether the statute of limitations ran out for prosecutors to seek charges against Daniels, Master Sgt. Richard Collins and Lt. Col. Michael Briggs. In citing previous cases, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces ruled that allegations from before 2006 could only be charged if they were prosecuted within five years of the sexual assaults. That overruled a general understanding that military rape cases had no statute of limitations because they were considered capital offenses.
If the Supreme Court reverses the lower court’s ruling, it would allow people to bring forth decades-old sexual assault allegations against military members.
Attorneys for the airmen argued they shouldn’t have been prosecuted because the Eighth Amendment bars the death penalty in such cases that don’t result in death — that would be considered “cruel and unusual punishment, they said. That means the statute of limitations expired before they were court martialed.
“Since 1953, every court to consider it, including (the Appeals Court), has correctly understood that ... service members should receive the same protection against cruel and unusual punishment that civilians enjoy under the Eighth Amendment,” said Stephen Vladeck, an attorney who argued the airmen’s cases Tuesday.
Acting Solicitor General Jeff Wall challenged that ruling in Tuesday’s arguments, saying some rape cases were punishable by death. Even if the death penalty wasn’t sought, there was no statute of limitations, he argued.
“The question here is whether three convicted rapists will go scot-free inside the military,” Wall said.
The Appeals Court ruling stems from Briggs’ case. He was accused of raping a member of his squadron in 2005 at Mountain Home Air Force Base in southwest Idaho, according to court filings and media reports. The female Air Force member did not report the assault until after Briggs called her in 2013 and said, “I will always be sorry for raping you,” according to court documents that said the confession was recorded.
Briggs was convicted in 2014 and was sentenced to five months of confinement.
Collins was sentenced in 2017 to 16 ½ years in prison for raping a trainee in 2000 at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas, according to media reports.
All three men are discharged from service, but the sentences and dismissals were ultimately reversed after the Appeals Court ruling.
The Appeals Court shot down arguments that a military code amendment passed by Congress in 2006 to eliminate the five-year limit was not retroactive. This has resulted in several rape cases against other military defendants being dismissed, Wall said.
Victims face huge hurdles when reporting rape, especially in the military, said Peter Coote, a Philadelphia attorney who is representing two victims connected to the cases. Many don’t come forward because they fear retribution from superiors, or they are afraid they won’t be believed, he noted.
Forum News Service typically does not name sexual assault victims.
In its petition, the government said sexual assault is devastating to the military's morale, discipline, and effectiveness.
All rape is henious, Wall said, but harms are different when military members are involved compared to civilians. Because of inconsistent interpretations, the Supreme Court needs to weigh in, the government said.
“Military rape can destroy a platoon,” Wall said. “It can undermine forces’ readiness. It can even damage foreign relations.”
Attorneys for the airmen agreed people convicted of rape should be punished, but courts must also ensure service members are not wrongly convicted based on stale and unreliable evidence.
“This is a classic example of such a case, where the evidence against (Daniels) was based solely on a faulty, conflicting memory of nuanced actions that occurred, and words that were uttered, almost 20 years earlier; where key witnesses disappeared or died, and relevant evidence became inadmissible,” one brief said.
Congress’ move to eliminate the statute of limitations for military rape cases has closed the loophole for sexual assaults less than 15 years old, but there are still a number of older cases that could be impacted by the Supreme Court’s ruling, Coote said.
“There’s enough of them,” Coote said. “And more may still come forward, but they won’t come forward if they already know it’s too late.”
Vladeck and Wall were contacted for comment, but they did not respond by publication time.