The Webster Smith case was a litmus test for justice in America. Every once in a while a case comes along that puts our humanity as a people, and as Americans on trial. Everything that we profess to stand for as Americans was on trial. Our sense of Justice in America and particularly in the U. S. Military was on trial. This was no ordinary trial. Our humanity was on trial. Our system of justice was on trial. This case dissolved the deceptive façade and exposed certain moral deficiencies in our system of justice.
The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal of the conviction of Webster Smith, the only Coast Guard Academy cadet ever court-martialed.
Smith’s conviction in 2006 on extortion, sodomy and indecent-assault charges – while he was acquitted on a rape count – had previously been upheld by the Coast Guard Court of Criminal Appeals and, in March, by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.
Smith had sought a Supreme Court review based largely on the argument that he had not been able to question the credibility of one of his accusers, known only as Cadet SR.
The right to confront one’s accusers is guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But the Armed Forces appeals court, in a 3-2 vote, ruled that judges have the discretion to bar testimony so long as the issue involved is not deemed necessary to the case. (Footnote 1.)
“Further cross-examination of Cadet SR was not ‘constitutionally required,’ ” according to the appeals court decision. “It was neither material nor vital.”
Smith’s attorneys wanted a chance to question the female cadet because, according to a legal brief, she had lied about the consensual nature of a previous sexual encounter with an enlisted man, contrary to Coast Guard rules and possibly jeopardizing her military career. The female cadet claimed Smith used knowledge of her previous dalliance to extort sexual favors from her.
“The defense maintained that the two cadets’ sexual encounter was consensual and that SR was fabricating her accusations because the encounter occurred in Chase Hall, the Academy dormitory, where sexual activity is prohibited by cadet regulations,” according to a brief in the case.
The court’s minority, including Chief Judge C.J. Effron, agreed that Smith’s attorneys should have been allowed to question the female cadet. In a dissenting opinion, they said Smith’s “allegation that SR had previously lied about a sexual encounter” was relevant to the case.
Last month the Supreme Court rejected Smith’s petition seeking a hearing on the case, effectively making the military appeals court’s decision final.
The case had racial overtones because Smith, who is black, claimed his treatment was harsher than previously meted out to whites at the Coast Guard Academy accused of sexual impropriety. The Department of Homeland Security investigated the allegations in 2007 and denied the complaint.
“Many Supreme Court experts thought the high court might take Smith’s case, but the justices declined the case without comment,” according to the Law And Order blog found at http://lawandorderroybean.blogspot.com.
Efforts to speak with Smith and attorneys on both sides of the case were unsuccessful Monday. Smith, a former Coast Guard football star now living in Houston with his wife and daughter, spent nearly five months in a military prison after receiving a six-month sentence.
Coast Guard spokeswoman Lisa Novak said Monday that Smith’s case is currently in the process of residual clemency, which will allow him to submit additional information before a review of his sentence by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.
Novak said Smith also has the right to seek a new trial before the Coast Guard appeals court, if he submits newly discovered evidence, and could also have his record cleared with a presidential pardon. According to Texas law, he will have to register as a sex offender, the National Law Journal reported.
The Smith case resulted in changes at the Coast Guard Academy, which formed a task force after the trial to look into the atmosphere on campus. The report cited a strong association between alcohol abuse and sexual assault as well as a mistrust of the Coast Guard Academy’s leadership among minorities.
Captain Judith Keene, the first female Commandant of Cadets at the Coast Guard Academy (CGA) pledged a tough stance against campus sexual violence in July 2006 following the court-martial in which cadets testified that such issues were not taken seriously.
A subsequent study by the Government Accountability Office, issued in 2008 after a series of revelations about sexual misconduct at U.S. military academies, said the Coast Guard should be required to report on efforts to stem the tide of sexual assault and harassment cases.
Keene, who was among the first women to graduate from the academy, took over as the military equivalent of the dean of students at CGA. She replaced Captain Douglas Wisniewski, who left for a position at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C..
The Coast Guard Academy will have the first woman superintendent of a military service academy at the helm of the U.S. C. G. A. when classes convene in the summer of 2011. The commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm. Bob Papp, has selected Rear Adm. Sandra L. Stosz, Coast Guard director of reserve and leadership, for the superintendent position. Rear Admiral Stosz graduated from CGA in 1982 with a bachelor of science degree in Government.
The GAO noted the Coast Guard Academy was the only U.S. military school not required to report to Congress on sexual-misconduct cases.
Published 12/28/2010 12:00 AM.
U.S. Constitution: Sixth Amendment
Sixth Amendment – Rights of Accused in Criminal Prosecutions
Amendment Text |
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.
Article 133. Conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman:
Any commissioned officer, cadet, or midshipman who is convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman shall be punished as a court-martial may direct. (10 USC Sec. 933)