NDAA Reauthorization Undermines Good Soldier Defense
The recent reauthorization of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) included a number of reforms intended to address rising concerns about sexual assault in the military. One of the reforms that gained bipartisan support, however, has made it more difficult for experienced California military defense lawyers to present a full picture of their client’s personal and professional service to juries.
The defense, popularly known as the “good soldier” defense, previously allowed defense attorneys to present evidence about a servicemember’s professional record in court as part of the defense’s response to allegations of sexual assault. The changes instituted in the most recent reauthorization of NDAA, however, limit the use of this defense, bringing military criminal procedure more in line with the rules of evidence used in civilian courts.
Supporters of the change say that limiting the “good soldier” defense is necessary because a criminal sexual assault case should focus on the acts involved, not the character of the people. However, because sexual assault cases often boil down to the version of events each party remembers, evidence that helps a jury weigh credibility and truthfulness can be especially important. It is also vital to remind jurors that the career and future of a soldier rests in their hands – a reminder that matters when “reasonable doubt” is at stake.
Evidence of a defendant’s good character and service can still be admitted at sentencing, however. And it can be admitted in other types of courts-martial, such as those that handle charges like desertion or disobeying orders. However, its use in situations involving “non-military” allegations, like sexual assault or murder, appears to have been significantly limited.