In United States v. Briggs, the United States Supreme Court recently reversed holdings in three cases from CCAF and ruled that the 5-year statute of limitations in Article 43(b)(1) did not prevent the prosecution of three defendants charged with alleged rapes that occurred between 1986 and 2006. The statute of limitations issue arose because of a conflict between statutory provisions of the UCMJ that authorized the death penalty for rape which conflict with Supreme Court precedent holding that death is an unconstitutional punishment for the rape of an adult woman.
Between 1986 and 2006 Article 120(a) authorized death as a punishment for rape. Additionally, Article 43(a) provided that any offense “punishable by death “could be tried at any time without limitation,” in effect eliminating the statute of limitations for rape. However, because the Supreme Court had ruled in Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1997), that death was not a constitutional punishment for the rape of an adult woman, the defendants in these cases contended that rape was not in fact “punishable by death” and therefore the default 5-year statute of limitations under Article 43(b)(1) applied and barred their prosecutions. This argument prevailed at CAAF. The Supreme Court reversed. In a unanimous opinion the Court held that the term “punishable by death” must be interpreted from the provisions the UCMJ itself rather than provisions or court opinions outside of the code. Justice Alito characterized the issue in this case as an “important question” but it is unclear how big of an impact this opinion will have because the window of cases is relatively narrow, applying only with potential cases between 1986 and 2006 that have not yet been charged.