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Marine's sex assault conviction overturned

Associated Press Updated: June 5, 2014 at 1:19 pm

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The Marine Corps' highest-ranking officer illegally influenced a jury with a series of talks about cracking down on sex assault cases, according to a military appeals court that has overturned an enlisted man's conviction.

In its May 22 ruling, the U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals says commandant Gen. James Amos' push against sexual assault was unlawful command influence. The court set aside the 19-year sentence at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, handed down to Staff Sgt. Stephen P. Howell in October 2012. He was convicted after a military court trial at Parris Island, South Carolina, of rape, forcible sodomy, adultery and other charges against a Lexington woman.

The ruling comes as the military and Congress seeks to crack down on sexual assaults in the ranks. In Amos' 2012 remarks, he said court-martial panels were becoming soft on such cases and urged tough actions.

Amos said "the fact of the matter is, 80 percent of the (allegations) are legitimate sexual assault" rather than "buyer's remorse."

In the May ruling, Chief Judge Moira Modzelewski wrote: "An objective, disinterested observer, knowing that potential court-martial members heard this very personal appeal ... to 'fix' the sexual assault problem, would harbor significant doubts about the fairness of a sexual assault trial held shortly thereafter in June."

Modzelewski, a Navy captain, left open the possibility of a new trial for Howell. The Marine Corps has until June 21 to appeal the case or return it to the presiding judge in South Carolina.

Howell's attorney, Ed Massey of Erlanger, Kentucky, said Howell is stuck in the military brig until the Marine Corps makes its next move.

"He is sitting in Leavenworth with his sentence and guilty verdict set aside," Massey said. "He is just sitting there."

The case stems from allegations made by a Lexington woman whose son was being recruited by Howell. Howell maintained that any sexual contact with the woman was consensual.

Charles Rose, a former judge advocate in the Army and now a professor at Stetson University Law School in Gulfport, Fla., said the ruling could become problematic for prosecutors in other cases involving Marines. The potential for such a ruling "has been hanging out there for a while," Rose said.

But as long as the comments are associated strictly with the Marines, they likely won't cause problems for the Army, Navy or Air Force, Rose said.

Only if defense attorneys can find a way to attribute the remarks to the commander-in-chief "or his agents" would Amos' comments potentially become an issue in other branches of the service, Rose said.

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Follow Associated Press reporter Brett Barrouquere on Twitter: http://twitter.com/BBarrouquereAP

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