A decision by the armed forces’ highest civilian appeals court could prevent service members from seeking retribution against sexual assailants who committed the attacks years ago.
On Feb. 6, the five judges sitting on the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces unanimously ruled that a former service member could not press rape charges against Air Force Lt. Col. Edzel D. Mangahas. The charge stemmed from an alleged rape that took place while the two were cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1997.
The court’s opinion, written by Judge Margaret A. Ryan, stated that the rape charge is not exempt from the five-year statute of limitations for prosecuting such crimes. Federal law mandates that only cases involving the death penalty or missing movement in time of war can be reopened after five years elapses.
However, Ryan also noted that Supreme Court has determined that the death penalty for rape cases amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. The rape charge against Mangahas lacked the necessary “aggravating circumstances” that would elevate the case sufficiently to warrant the death penalty, the court ruled. As such, the five-year statute of limitations did apply to this case.
Mangahas was charged with rape under the Uniform Code of Military Justice in October 2015 for the alleged 1997 incident. The alleged victim, identified in court documents simply as “DS,” could not produce any DNA evidence that would implicate Mangahas.
Still, after an Article 32 hearing — the military equivalent of a civilian grand jury — Mangahas was charged with the crime.
At court-martial, Mangahas asked for the charges to be dismissed. Besides claiming that the statute of limitations had passed, he also asserted that the charges violated his rights to a proper referral and speedy trial. The trial judge denied his motion to dismiss the charges based on the statute of limitations, but agreed with his other contentions and ordered the trial delayed pending further review. The government’s failure to prosecute the charges until 18 years had passed did violate Mangahas’ due process right to a speedy trial as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment, the trial judge ruled.
Prosecutors then turned to the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals, which ruled that the judge at court martial should not have determined that actual prejudice against Mangahas resulted in a delay of due process for him. The appellate court granted with prejudice a stay of court-martial proceedings, pending a review by the five-judge panel at the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.
The court based its opinion on facts garnered during Oct. 11 oral arguments.
“Here, the death penalty is simply unavailable for the charged offense on constitutional grounds,” wrote Ryan, who was appointed to the court by President George W. Bush in 2006. “We need not and do not decide today what potentiality or procedural posture equates to punishable by death.” [The Italics are cited from the opinion.]
“The statute of limitations in this case is five years,” Ryan wrote. “The charge and specification are dismissed.”