The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on cases today that could open the door for prosecuting decades-old rape allegations that have been previously prohibited due to a five-year time limit placed on prosecuting rapes that may have occurred between 1986 to 2006.
The new court case would not affect current rape cases, but it could impact some older cases that were previously deemed too old for prosecuting, said retired Marine Corps officer and career military attorney Colby Vokey.
“There are probably not very many cases in the system where this applies,” Vokey said in an interview. “But there’s always the potential for someone to make a rape allegation now, from 20 years ago, and all of the sudden for this to be relevant.”
The specific case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, the United States v. Briggs, is consolidated, or combined with other similar rape cases. The main case involves Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Briggs. Those other cases involve two other Air Force personnel accused of rape — Lt. Col. Humphrey Daniels, who raped a woman in 1998 and Master Sgt. Richard Collins, who raped an airman in 2000.
Briggs was convicted in 2014 of raping a staff sergeant in 2005. The victim called the Briggs in 2013 and he confessed to his actions. The call was recorded.
“I will always be sorry for raping you,” Briggs told the female victim, according to court records.
Briggs was court-martialed, convicted and sentenced to five months confinement and discharged from service.
And, despite the nine years between the rape and prosecution, the sentenced appeared to stand under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. That’s because the UCMJ classified some rapes as a crime punishable by death, meaning it had no time limit for prosecution.
Yet the legal notion that rape has no statute of limitations under the UCMJ has been a source of debate for years.
In 1998, the military’s highest court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, known as the CAAF, struck down that idea that rape has no statute of limitations, ruling that some rape charges were not eligible to receive a death penalty sentence. That decision triggered a five-year statute of limitations for UCMJ rape cases.
Congress got into the mix in 2006 when they amended the UCMJ, abolishing the time limit for rape. That’s why Briggs was able to be convicted.
However, in February 2018, the CAAF affirmed the existence of a statute of limitations, but only for alleged crimes that fell between 1986 to 2006. In that case — U.S. v. Mangahas — the court cited the 2006 law change and its application to those older cases as a “gray area.”
Briggs later appealed his conviction and won.
Since then, the military has pressed this and similar cases that fall within the timeline to resolve any “gray area” ambiguity and convince the court to assert that there is no statute of limitations for rape under the UCMJ..
Vokey said that a big reason the case is receiving the attention it has is more of a political than legal question.
“Make no mistake, the military is seeking this reversal to satisfy members of Congress,” Vokey said.
A brief filed on behalf of the government by members of Congress spells out that lawmakers did not intend to place a limitation of prosecution of rape in the military, according to court documents.
For his part, Vokey said he agrees with the defense argument that the Supreme Court does not have jurisdiction and, if sticking purely to the legal questions, the statute of limitation should hold as it has been interpreted.
“I think it makes the most sense,” Vokey said.
The case had effects beyond overturning that conviction. It also discouraged military prosecutors from holding retired Army Maj. Gen. James Grazioplene accountable for repeatedly raping his daughter through the 1980s.
He was charged in 2017 and ultimately convicted on just a few counts, not in a military court, but when he pleaded guilty in Virginia this summer and received time served for jail time awaiting trial.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.