A military court has dismissed charges against a former Marine scout sniper who pleaded guilty to urinating on Taliban corpses, finding that former Commandant Gen. James Amos had illegally interfered with the legal process at the outset.
Staff Sgt. Joseph W. Chamblin was reduced in rank to sergeant and ordered to pay $500 after he pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the 2011 incident in Afghanistan, which became a national scandal after video of the Marines urinating on the bodies was posted on YouTube in January 2012.
But neither Chamblin nor his defense attorneys knew at the time that Amos had replaced Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser as the first convening authority in the case after telling Waldhauser that he wanted the Marines involved with the urination incident to be “crushed” and discharged, the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Appeals found on Wednesday.
“This is an unusually flagrant example of UCI (unlawful command influence),” the court ruled. “We find that UCI this direct, and occurring at this level is highly corrosive to public trust in this proceeding.”
In an affidavit to the court, Waldhauser wrote that Amos asked him why he did not feel that the accused Marines should be sent to a general court-martial, which is reserved for the most serious offenses. When Waldhauser said he did not believe the cases warranted a general court-martial, Amos said he could appoint a new convening authority.
Amos later “admitted that he had crossed the line” and told Waldhauser he was being replaced as convening authority to avoid the appearance of interfering in the case, Waldhauser wrote.
But appointing a new general officer to be in charge of the case did not solve the problem, the court found. For example, Corps officials argued they did not tell Chamblin’s defense attorneys about Amos’ comments to Waldhauser to avoid exposing all involved in the trial to Amos’ act of unlawful influence.
“The appellant had a right to discovery and a right to judicial process free from UCI,” the court found. “An accused does not forfeit his right to discovery because the government’s preferred UCI remedy requires it.”
Some of Amos’ other actions undermined the general public’s confidence in the proceedings independence and impartiality, such as holding a briefing that included pictures of the Marines urinating on Taliban corpses along with the words, “What Does America Think of Her Marines Today,” the court found. The ruling was first reported by Military.com.
The court agreed with Chamblin’s defense that an impartial observer would believe that Amos and Corps attorneys “severely and systematically interfered” with the legal proceedings, the ruling says.
Retired Lt. Col. James Weirick, who filed a series of complaints in 2013 arguing that Amos acting improperly in the scout sniper cases, called the court’s ruling “historic.”
The fact that Amos and other Corps officials were found to have violated a Marine’s due process rights shows that it is time to update the military justice system ― possibly by putting the Justice Department in charge of prosecuting military cases, Weirick told Marine Corps Times on Thursday.
“It’s hard to imagine underplaying the significance of this,” he said.