In rare move, federal judge overrules military court and reopens molestation case

In a rare legal move, a federal judge in San Diego has reopened a case that was tried in military court because of concerns that a sailor might have been wrongly convicted of molesting a child.

In his decision dated July 11, U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel ordered federal prosecutors to respond to a petition brought by attorneys representing Navy Petty Officer James R. Rich.

Rich contends that the military violated his constitutional rights by relying on the shaky, hearsay testimony of a toddler and then allowing a juror to disregard the sailor’s exemplary military record as his sentence was decided in 2014.

David Sheldon, the Washington, D.C.-based appellate attorney for Rich, praised Curiel’s decision Monday. He said the military court system gave the sailor “short-shrift review and failed to address his constitutional challenges to his conviction.” Curiel’s order, he added, is the “first step in righting this injustice.”

Navy officials declined to discuss the case while it is undergoing appeal.

“I have never seen a habeas corpus [petition] where a federal court intervened in a military case. I am sure it has happened before, but it is rare,” said San Diego-based attorney Jeremiah Sullivan III, an expert in military law.

A panel of sailors convicted Rich during a general court-martial in Norfolk, Va., for the aggravated sexual abuse of a child. It sentenced him to seven years’ confinement; he’s currently imprisoned at the base in Miramar, Calif., and his federal court case was heard in San Diego.

In early 2012, Rich was living with a girlfriend and her 3-year-old daughter in Virginia. The child allegedly told her mother that she had performed oral sex on Rich, and he was arrested. Rich, who has professed his innocence, said the girl might have mistakenly seen a consensual act between him and his girlfriend recorded on his mobile phone.

The military judge conceded that the preschooler’s recollections 2-1/2 years later failed to fully match what she initially told her mother and investigators. However, the judge allowed the girl’s “clear, voluntary, uncontrived and spontaneous” statements into the trial.

After a jury of Rich’s peers convicted him, it was supposed to weigh his otherwise outstanding military record when deciding his punishment. A lieutenant later told attorneys in a separate criminal case that he had focused solely on the alleged crime and not Rich’s military decorations and the glowing testimony of a supervisor.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces in Washington denied Rich’s bid to reopen his case. The tribunal unanimously ruled that the girl’s testimony was sufficiently credible. It took more than a year for Rich’s appeal to reach U.S. District Court.

Federal prosecutors are expected to file a response to Curiel’s order by Aug. 11.

Prine writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune

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