A new Air Force policy has sparked a debate on privacy rights, and whether airmen found not guilty of crimes should have their names announced by the service.
The Air Force recently updated the way it reports the results of court-martial cases, posting the results to the Judge Advocate General’s website. Convicted airmen are listed publicly with their name and sentence.
But any airmen found not guilty don’t have their names included in the document releases.
When airmen are first accused of a crime, their name, job, and the charges against them are a matter of public record. Many news organizations — the Air Force Times included — report about these troops facing court martial.
But if an airman is ever acquitted, he or she once again falls under the laws of privacy, the Air Force says. As a result, their names are not released, and indeed there is rarely any sort of official notice from the military about the conclusion of the case.
That's caused some to question whether the Air Force should publish the names of acquitted airmen, as they do when they are charged.
There appear to be mixed feelings about reporting acquittals by name.
Sally Stenton, a retired Lt. Col. who served in the Air Force JAG office for more than 20 years, said she would want it to be public knowledge were she acquitted of a crime.
“In not publishing the names of those that are acquitted, I think they are actually doing harm to that person,” said Stenton, now an adjunct professor at Rutgers Law School. “All people know is that airman so and so was charged with a heinous offense, and then that’s all they ever hear about it.”
If people look up the result of a trial, “they’re not going to find that that person went through our justice system — setup by the law and Constitution — and was acquitted,” she said. “If it’s already been published that they were charged, I don’t understand the JAG Corp’s position of not releasing a name that’s already public record. The whole process is public record including the acquittal.”
She cautioned that being acquitted of a crime doesn’t necessarily always mean the accused was innocent.
“Either the person was actually innocent of the offenses, or the government — in this case the Air Force didn’t do enough to prove its case,” Stenton said.
Still, if the result was an acquittal, she said she’d want that information known.
“As a criminal law professor, if I were the defense counsel of someone who was acquitted, that’s actually the thing that I would most want published,” Stenton said.
Other defense lawyers disagree.
Take, for example, the case of a male Air Force officer at Mildenhall Air Base in the United Kingdom. He was accused of sexually assaulting and fraternizing with an enlisted airman; he was also charged with assault consummated by battery. But he was acquitted during an August court martial.
No information identifying the officer was released, and the Air Force Times was only able to get confirmation of the individual's name by reaching out to his lawyer. Instead, the JAG office posted this notification in its August list of trial results:
“At RAF Mildenhall, United Kingdom, an officer was acquitted by a military judge alone of assault consummated by a battery, sexual assault, abusive sexual contact, and fraternization,” the document read.
Yet there is no public announcement of the name of the individual who was acquitted. Indeed, the top result when doing an Internet search for his name is the Air Force Times story listing the charges against him.
The Air Force Times was unable to reach the individual, but did speak with Philip Cave, his civilian attorney who took the opposite view of Stenton, arguing that the less said about a case — even about an acquittal — the better.
“Fairness would suggest that they should have immediately issued a press release to show that he was not guilty. That’s one side of the coin,” Cave said. “The other side of the coin is the more you put the name out, even if it’s to register an acquittal, the more people who are likely to pick up on his name.”
“My personal view is the less said the better,” Cave continued. “The less there is on the Google, the less likely the person’s name is to come up … He’s gone through a bunch. I don’t see why he should have to be abused in public anymore.”
Cave said he would like to see a system adopted similar to ones used in Australia, Britain, and Canada, where the accused person’s name is not released until the conclusion of the trial.
The results of Air Force court martial trials — both convictions and acquittals — have been put into PDF’s and posted to the JAG website. The plan, officials said, is to leave the results on the website for 90 days. After that, they will be available by contacting the JAG office.
Col. Chuck Killion, the director of Air Force Judiciary, said the updates were made to bring the Air Force reporting more in line with the other services.
As for whether to report or not report the names of acquittals, Killion said the Air Force is following current U.S. law and Pentagon directorship.
“Before the decision was made by the Judge Advocate General, we had input from the senior trial lawyers in our community who unanimously agreed that the best policy for a universally applied approach was to eliminate the name of the airmen” from acquittals, he said.
Policy makers believed that “an accused who is acquitted of a court marital had an increased privacy right after the acquittal, [more] than they did after the charges were referred to trial,” Killion said. “After there’s an acquittal, the accused’s privacy rights come back.”
Killion argued that there was not a “one size fits all shape of justice.”
“While there might be airmen who feel strongly that they might want to get out there and vindicate their name, there are some that feel the opposite,” he said. “We are trying to do what we can to not preserve an electronic record link to someone’s name of what is normally the most stressful time of someone’s life.”