The nation’s top military appellate judges will scrutinize a seemingly sluggish Air Force court that has vexed the service’s members from Alaska to Florida and beyond.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces has agreed to hear the case of a former master sergeant who waited nearly three years for the Air Force to resolve his appeal of a court-martial conviction. The delay exceeded the 18 months that judges consider reasonable for appellate decisions.
“I think it’s extremely important,” Georgia-based attorney William Cassara said in an interview Wednesday. “This gives the appeals court a chance to tell the Air Force court that ‘You need to police up your shop.’ ”
Cassara represents Timothy L. Merritt Sr., a former master sergeant convicted in Germany in September 2009 of child pornography charges. Merritt’s appeal was put on the docket of the U.S. Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals in February 2010. In December 2012, the court rejected the appeal. While acknowledging the delay was “unreasonable,” the Air Force judges also deemed it “harmless.”
Under a 2006 court ruling, any military appellate delay longer than 18 months is considered unreasonable. It’s then up to the lower military court to decide whether to provide legal relief, such as a reduction in a prison term.
At least 52 fully briefed cases have been stuck on the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals’s docket for longer than 18 months, court records show. The court’s track record doesn’t promise relief anytime soon.
An Alaska-based airman convicted on an obscenity charge at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska in August 2009, for instance, had his appeal resolved last month. An enlisted woman convicted of marijuana possession and larceny charges at Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas in October 2009 and an airman convicted of drug and forgery charges at Florida’s MacDill Air Force Base in August 2010 likewise had their appeals decided last month.
Each complained that the appellate delay was unreasonable.
“While these events are unfortunate, they do not show bad faith or gross indifference to the processing” of the case, the Air Force appellate court concluded in the April 18 decision involving the former enlisted woman, Jacinta-Marie R. Tompkins.
In rejecting Tompkins’s appeal, the Air Force court acknowledged that “post-trial processing . . . has been less than exemplary,” but also cited many reasons why. Tompkins’s own attorneys took a year to file their appellate brief. An e-mail foul-up contributed to the delay, as did difficulty in serving legal papers.
Air Force officials have stressed that the service is working hard to expedite the appellate process and that some delays are the result of defense actions.
“The timely and fair administration of military justice is a priority for the Air Force and is an important element of excellence in military justice,” Air Force Maj. Joel T. Harpers said in an interview.