SJA ensures justice across wing is fair, just
By Lt. Col. Vance Spath, 90th Space Wing Staff Judge Advocate
/ Published September 21, 2007
F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo. --
Recently, an Airman was tried in a general court-martial for negligent homicide and neglectful parenting for 20 months. The negligent homicide charge arose from an incident where the Airman's young child drowned in a bathtub. After a trial in front of a military judge, the Airman was acquitted of the negligent homicide charge but convicted of the neglectful parenting charge. After a sentencing hearing, the Airman was sentenced to two months confinement and reduction to E-1.
A couple weeks after the trial, I was speaking with a senior NCO about the appropriate level of discipline in an unrelated case. The NCO made a sarcastic comment to me about the above referenced trial and the punishment given by the military judge. The comment was something like, "Yea, so how did that case go for you." It was clear the NCO thought I would be personally aggrieved about the confinement term or was suggesting that, as a staff judge advocate, I would want the punishment to be more severe in cases my office handles.
This comment was a stark reminder that I have not done a good enough job educating those on base of my role as the SJA, specifically in the military justice arena. By federal statute, the 90th Space Wing commander, in his role as a court-martial convening authority, must communicate directly with his SJA in all matters relating to the administration of military justice. By that same statute, if I act as prosecutor or accuser in any case, I am unable to act as the SJA and advise the wing commander in matters relating to that case.
Simply put, my role is to ensure the fair administration of justice throughout the wing. I personally advise commanders at all levels of command about what action should be taken in instances of alleged misconduct; however, I do so in my role as a neutral adviser always remembering the goal is a fair system of discipline throughout the wing. While there are prosecutors in my office and they do work for me, my loyalty is to the military justice system. I accomplish that by giving fair and balanced advice to the commanders and leaders in the wing.
Let's use the above referenced case as an example. At some point after a complete investigation, I would be asked to advise the commander about the appropriate level of discipline, given the facts of the case, the interests of good order and discipline, and the manner in which similar cases have been handled. In this case, I recommended the case go to a court-martial as the case involved a child's death and significant allegations of child neglect. The commander agreed, and after significant pretrial processing, the case did go to a court-martial.
As with every court-martial, the case was open to the public. It was a well attended trial. By all accounts the prosecutors and defense counsel were all professional and put forth their theories of the case in an outstanding manner. The accused Airman chose to be tried by military judge alone, a colonel from Randolph Air Force Base, Texas.
As for the perception that the punishment was light or inappropriate in this case, it is completely irrelevant to my recommended course of action. The key for me, in my role, is that the case was tried in public so the community could see the justice system at work. The fact that the Airman was acquitted of the most serious charge is a good thing. It proves that our system works. If the government cannot prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, the judge or jury should and must acquit.
As for the sentence, that again was determined by an impartial judge who took all the facts in mitigation and aggravation into consideration. Again, I view it as a success because both the prosecution and defense put forth their case, and an impartial judge made a determination.
When dealing with misconduct and what discipline level to recommend, my role is not to ensure "maximum punishment." My goal is not to recommend the most severe discipline response in every case. My goal is to ensure the right level of discipline is determined on a case-by-case basis and that this discipline appropriately addresses the crime. Ultimately, my goal is to ensure the administration of justice across the wing is fair and is perceived as fair. So to the senior NCO, I say, "The case went great for our system of justice."