Veteran victims of military rape achieved a huge win Thursday in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a statute of limitations will not protect military members charged with rape. The unanimous ruling reinstated the military rape convictions of Lt. Col. Michael Briggs and two other Air Force members, Master Sgt. Richard Collins and Lt. Col. Humphrey Daniels.
Until 1977, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) subjected those convicted of rape to the death penalty - with no time limits to protect service members from charges of military rape.
Why such a harsh sentence? For one, Congress felt strongly that military rape damages the critical objectives of order and discipline – objectives that continue to make the U.S. military a powerful global force.
In addition, military rape cases are particularly damaging to the victim. Service members subjected to rape can have extreme difficulties both in serving their country and adjusting to civilian life.
As covered in my upcoming book, Betrayal of Valor (Sutton Hart Press),victims of military sexual trauma show significantly higher rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sexual dysfunction, problems with authority, eating disorders, memory problems, depression, and mood disorders than veterans who are not exposed to sexual trauma during service.
In 1977, the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for military rape cases. In 1998, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) established a five-year statute of limitations on military rape cases. This ruling allowed at least 10 military rape cases to go unprosecuted.
In 2006, Congress got rid of the five-year statute of limitations, and until 2018, victims of military rape could bring a claim against their assailant at any time.
But in 2018, Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Briggs decided to fight his sentence for a 2014 rape. Briggs argued that his conviction should be overturned because the statute of limitations was not in effect when he committed his crime.
In an upsetting decision, CAAF held that victims of military rape occurring during the 20-years between 1986 and 2006 had only five years to bring charges against their assailant. Under this ruling, CAAF dismissed two other military rape convictions: that of Air Force Master Sgt. Richard Collins who was convicted of a 2000 rape and Air Force Lt. Col. Humphrey Daniels who was convicted of a 1998 rape. All three convictions were obtained during a time when no statute of limitations applied.
The decision left open the possibility that numerous other cases of rape could be dismissed, leaving victims with no means of recourse.
However, in Thursday’s unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the CAAF decision and held that no statute of limitations would protect military members accused of a rape. According to Military.com, the justices opined that the UCMJ has historically treated military rape as “egregious and destructive” - punishable by death, and that rape by military personnel "creates a unique set of harms that goes even beyond those of rape by a civilian," damaging the U.S. military objectives of order and discipline.
In the opinion Justice Samuel Alito writes, "Among other things, the government argues that a rape committed by a service member may cause special damage by critically undermining unit cohesion and discipline and that, in some circumstances, the crime may have serious international implications. That also appears to have been the view of Congress and the executive."
A major victory for all military rape survivors, the Supreme Court decision reinstates the conviction of Air Force members Lt. Col. Michael Briggs, Master Sgt. Richard Collins, and Lt. Col. Humphrey Daniels.