Lynch Mob Media Wakes Up, Wrongly Hyperventilates Over 2016 Appellate Ruling

Tech. Sgt. Jaime Rodriguez (Air Force)

TSgt. Jaime Rodriguez is a dirtbag. The facts of his conviction in a 2013 court martial leave little doubt about this. He used his position as an Air Force recruiter to form and consummate inappropriate sexual relationships with recruits, applicants, and recruiter’s assistants. To make matters worse, Rodriguez was married at the time of his crimes, meaning he dishonored his family as well as his uniform.

The 13-year veteran’s misconduct bought him a 27-year prison sentence, dishonorable discharge, and reduction to E-1.

Outside the small circle who carefully watch Air Force courts, hardly anyone noticed when, in July 2016, the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals (AFCCA) found merit in Rodriguez’s argument that his convictions on the most serious charges should be set aside.

In an exhaustively explanatory 22-page opinion, AFCCA held that the Government’s evidence had been legally and factually insufficient to support a charge of consensual sodomy (a crime at the time that has since been removed from the punitive articles of the UCMJ) and that the evidence had been legally sufficient but factually insufficient to support charges of aggravated sexual assault by causing bodily harm and abusive sexual contact by causing bodily harm.

The court upheld other charges, including many to which Rodriguez had pled guilty at trial. But as a result of its holding, AFCCA authorized a re-hearing on sentencing. He was eventually sentenced to 6 years in prison.

Now, 17 months later, Sig Christenson and the San Antonio Express-News are apoplectic that Rodriguez is being released after 4.5 years in jail, and have responded by running the following ridiculous headline:

Doesn’t get much more sensational than that. This is the type of nonsense that encourages sympathy for scumbags like Rodriguez … by exaggerating the evil of their acts and the harms inflicted.

The “teens” to which the article refers were of legal age to engage in sexual activity. The appeals court found that consent had been legally present in the acts committed by Rodriguez. Christenson would understand these things if he’d read the AFCCA opinion carefully. If he did read it, then his sensationalist headline is dishonest, which is even worse than being merely misguided.

The use of power and position to subtly seduce, groom, and coerce women into sexual activity that is legally consensual but undignified and degrading is an act of insidious and crafty evil all its own. It is harmful enough to stand on its own. It occupies its own nasty segment on the spectrum of sexual misconduct. It needn’t be overstated, and to overstate it is to imply that it’s not quite bad enough to deserve our moral disapprobation. This minimizes the conduct, making it seem less serious than it is. It’s like admitting that only violent rape should deserve our total disgust.

Missing this point, Christenson positions himself as something like a clickbait provocateur desperate to lure readership by hinting at salacious behavior involving “teens.” Never mind that the majority of the Rodriguez case — and the totality of the AFCCA reduction in sentence — turned on his relationship with an Airman First Class serving a recruiter’s assistant … and not a “barely legal” applicant or recruit.

Express-News has unwittingly assumed a decidedly anti-feminist position in its reporting on the Air Force, unfairly portraying  empowered adult women possessed of independence and sexual agency as windswept daisies powerless against the whimsy of powerful men.

Not to be left out of the hysteria, Air Force Times has jumped head first into the journalistic swamp (that’s my emphasis on the editorial syntax):

There are at least three major problem with the specimen of tabloidism visible in this limited snip.

First of all, the answer to the question “how did this just happen” is easily found in the AFCCA opinion. To wit, it didn’t “just happen” … it happened in July 2016, when the AFCCA vacated the most serious charges against the appellant and sent his case down for re-sentencing. Air Force Times seems mystified that it didn’t notice the significance of the 2016 holding, unintentionally hinting at its own ineptitude.

Second, Rodriguez was not “freed 20 years early” as the headline claims. He was freed legally on time, after serving 4.5 years in prison for engaging in consensual sex that violated Air Force regulations. The court found him guilty of several serious offenses, but he’s a dirtbag criminal, not a violent rapist.

Third, and most egregiously, the article does violence to the facts by saying Rodriguez was “sent to prison for sexually assaulting high school girls.” This is just plain false. Rodriguez’s lone assault conviction concerned an Airman First Class serving on Air Force active duty, not a high school girl. That conviction has been overturned. He pled guilty to inappropriate relationships with other young women, but was neither accused nor found guilty of assaulting or harming them.

“Reporters” and “editors” working at these two publications are punching well above their weight in attempting to cover legal matters. Express-News attempted to mask this inefficiency by interviewing jurists, but the insights it harvested did little to shore up the subpar reporting.

For example, Rachel Vanlandingham, a retired USAF O-5 JAG and professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, asserted the following:

“There is a seeming trend by military appellate courts to abuse [their] power when it comes to sexual assault and rape cases. And Congress needs to take a fresh look at why the military courts retain a power that allows them to disbelieve rape victims, when the juries who actually heard from these victims in fact believed them.”

It’s fair to wonder if she read the opinion, or even the trial transcripts. This case has nothing to do with believing or disbelieving victim testimony, but with the evidence the trial counsel failed to present or didn’t present persuasively enough.

Sodomy cannot be proven without its elements being proven, one of which is penetration. The victim in this case testified vaguely that “oral sex” occurred, but did not give a detailed enough account for penetration to have been proven. The prosecution did not elicit sufficient testimony for the conviction to stand, and the prior case law on this point is clear.

Assault charges presuppose a “mistake of fact” defense with respect to consent, and cannot be proven unless mistake of fact can be disproven beyond a reasonable doubt. In other words, it’s assumed that a defendant charged with assault can claim (s)he thought the alleged victim consented, and that claim is to be presumed correct unless evidence is put on proving there wasn’t consent.

Rodriguez actively argued consent to sex had been present, and the facts supported his account (I won’t recount the lurid testimony here, but it’s available in the AFCCA opinion linked above). If there was consent, there could not have been assault. So, contrary to Vanlandingham’s argument, it’s not a matter of whether courts believe victims or not … but the legal operation of what those victims testified to under oath. Here the court found that the prosecution met the burden of presenting enough evidence that a reasonable jury could find guilt, but in reviewing that evidence independently, found that was insufficient to support a conviction because trial counsel did not carry the burden of showing that consent clearly and objectively was not present.

Vanlandingham is as wrong as can be. Appellate courts are the only thing standing between the USAF trial court system and legal oblivion. If Congress should be doing anything, it should be asking whether the Air Force should be permitted the continued exercise of a criminal justice process noticeably influenced by flavor-of-the-budget politics.

Incidentally, Southwestern Law is ranked 121st among American law schools. Its graduates have a first-time par passage rate of 62%. This is not a slam on Vanlandingham, but since the Express-News is including her views as a criminal law expert, it’s a relevant data point.

To be 100% clear, this article is not an apology for TSgt. Jaime Rodriguez. The man is an admitted scumbag and loser. He is deserving of not only the prison sentence he has served, but a solid ass-kicking.

But we can’t let our bloodthirst to condemn scumbags degrade our legal system or defile its underlying values. Law is the mechanism by which reason governs power. When reason is hijacked by hysteria-fueled jackassery of various forms, we have injustice committed in all our names. We can’t tolerate that.

In the world we all long to inhabit, a spade is a spade, a scumbag is a scumbag, and a rapist is a rapist. It’s a world where facts inform law and law informs justice.

In that world, the role of journalism is to relay and elucidate facts that exist in the physical world … not to present alternatives to fact or substitute lay analysis for legal analysis.

Jaime Rodriguez served the sentence of a dirtbag and will now live the life of a dirtbag. We don’t need to make him a rapist … unfortunately there are plenty of real rapists out there to catch and convict. If we can break our fixation on targets of opportunity long enough to notice them.

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