A military appeals court says assigning punitive menial chores to defendants prior to trial is illegal. (Colin Kelly / Staff)
A Marine supply unit in North Carolina acted illegally by forcing a Marine to clean decks with a “green scuzzy” scrub pad while he awaited trial, a military appeals court has ruled.
The Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals found that Cpl. Travis Sipple, a warehouse cleark with Camp Lejeune’s 2nd Supply Battalion, suffered “humiliating and degrading” treatment before his court-martial, and the court knocked more than two months off his sentence to rectify the problem.
According to a per curiam decision published June 20, Sipple pleaded guilty last year to conspiring with two other lance corporals to steal seven military toolboxes valued at more than $500 apiece, and attempting to steal seven more. He was sentenced Sept. 11 to forfeiture of pay and allowances, reduction to private, a dishonorable discharge, and more than five years of incarceration, though a pretrial agreement limited his time behind bars to 18 months.
Sipple appealed the sentence on the grounds it was unduly harsh compared with the sentences received by his co-conspirators, and that his command tried to retaliate against him — prior to his conviction — by forcing him to clean decks with a crub pad and do other menial and repetitive chores. The appeals court saw merit in the claims.
The two lance corporals who conspired with Sipple to steal the toolboxes, identified only by their initials, received significantly lesser sentences. In addition to loss of pay and rank and receiving dishonorable discharge, one got seven months of confinement, and the other received seven months in the brig and a $5,000 fine. While the appeals court judges acknowledged that Sipple had also been found guilty of lying to an investigator and planning another toolbox theft, they nonetheless determined that his sentence was excessive.
Sipple also alleged in his appeal that he was forced to scrub company work areas of 2nd Supply Battalion on his hands and knees with “only a bucket of water and green scratch pads” in view of fellow Marines — an exercise meant to humiliate and punish him prior to trial. And for 79 days while on limited duty following knee surgery, Sipple said he was required to perform physical labor, including working party duties, against the recommendation of his doctor.
According to a staff sergeant quoted in the opinion, Sipple’s company commander, a major, had said that “painting was too easy for (Sipple and his co-conspirators) and that he wanted these Marines doing something harder because they were in trouble.”
While the court found that Sipple’s company had the right to make sure he was “gainfully employed” during the workday while he awaited trial, they found fault with the “Cool Hand Luke”-style of repetitive chores with which he was tasked.
“The Government has advanced no ‘legitimate and non-punitive [military purpose]’ for this duty, and we find none.”
The court reduced Sipple’s confinement to three years and granted him 63 days of credit toward his confinement term to compensate for the unauthorized chores he did while awaiting trial.
Sipple’s military attorney, Marine reserve Lt. Col. Richard Belliss, said his client, who is being held in the Charleston Naval Consolidated Brig in South Carolina, was pleased with the decision.
“We’re just thankful that the appellate court agreed in part with our arguments,” he said. “Cpl. Sipple looks forward to moving on with his life.”