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Varying sentences for MTI conduct reflect uniqueness of cases

Apr. 6, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Staff Sgt. Annamarie Ellis arrives at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland for her trial on maltraining and maltreating basic trainees charges.
Staff Sgt. Annamarie Ellis arrives at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland for her trial on maltraining and maltreating basic trainees charges. (Jerry Lara / San Antonio Express-News)
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A foul-mouthed former military training instructor who threatened to send recruits home in body bags and made them work out naked will spend eight months in jail before she leaves the Air Force with a bad conduct discharge.

Ex-Staff Sgt. Annamarie Ellis, who was also busted to airman basic, pleaded guilty last month to two dozen counts of maltreatment, cruelty, dereliction of duty and obstruction of justice while working at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in 2009 and 2010.

Another MTI convicted of arguably more serious charges in a similar case a year ago was sentenced to less jail time and got to stay in the Air Force, at least for the time being.

Then-Tech. Sgt. Bobby Bass physically abused trainees, forced them to crowd naked together in a shower and apply muscle cream to their genitals. He lost one stripe.

The relatively disparate punishments illustrate how no two cases are ever alike, even if they appear to be, military law experts say.

“No two defendants are the same and no two crimes are the same,” said Geoffrey Corn, a South Texas College law professor and retired Army judge advocate general.

Ellis is one of 30 MTIs sent to trial in the last two years as part of a sweeping investigation of instructor misconduct. She is the only former trainee among them not accused of a sexual offense.

Twenty-eight of the 30 cases have resulted in convictions on some or all charges.

The offenses were far-ranging: Rape, sexual assault, consensual sexual relationships with basic trainees and technical trainees, adultery, unprofessional relationships over social media, maltraining, obstruction and false official statements. So were the sentences, from 20 years in prison to no jail time.

Five former MTIs — Staff Sgt. Ryan Deraas, Master Sgt. Jamey Crawford, Staff Sgt. William Romero, Staff Sgt. John Gerbick and Staff Sgt. Emily Allen — convicted last spring of unprofessional relationships with multiple trainees got jail sentences that ranged from 45 days to seven months.

On the low end was Gerbick, convicted of unprofessional relationships with two technical trainees, adultery and giving a false statement.

Crawford, who had sexual relationships with two women, including one who had graduated from basic just one day before, got seven months and a bad conduct discharge. Crawford was also convicted of adultery and false official statements.

Two ex-staff sergeants convicted of rape saw a 16-year difference in their prison sentences. Luis Walker was sentenced to 20 years; Eddy Soto to four years. Soto, who was married at the time of the crimes, admitted to having sex with two women, including a technical trainee, but denied the rape. Walker, who was also married, had sexual relationships with several of the nine other women he victimized.

Corn said those sentences aren’t as disparate as they might appear. MTIs who engaged in improper relationships received similar sentences. Felony cases saw a wider range, which is how it should be, Corn said.

“If the sentences were all the same, I would be really worried. That would tell me judges are applying implied sentencing guidelines, which they aren’t supposed to do,” Corn said. “Each case is supposed to be decided on its own merit. The punishment should fit the crime, the criminal, the victim and all the circumstances around it.”

'No right answer'

There are no sentencing guidelines under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, said Lt. Col. Erik Coyne, a judge advocate general, who was speaking about the process and not the MTI cases. “There is no right answer. The right answer is individualized to the particular accused.”

A contrite defendant who admits to his or her crime may escape jail time for an offense an unrepentant perpetrator gets a few months or more for, Coyne said. “All those factors play in to why a sentence may go one way or another.”

Some sentences serve as retribution, said Coyne, “what we think of as punishment.” Prosecutors may also argue for a sentence in an effort to deter a would-be perpetrator, to rehabilitate the accused, to protect society or, in the military, to establish good order and discipline — or some combination of these five so-called principals of sentencing, he said.

Defense attorneys may use the same principals to make a counter-argument, Coyne said.

Every case is unique, not just in the circumstances and accused, but the jury selected, said retired Lt. Col. Sally Stenton said, a former JAG who teaches military law at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

“Each member of the panel is an individual. The victims are all individuals. They all have their own backgrounds,” Stenton said. “Not every victim is a Girl Scout or a Boy Scout. You can have someone who is a victim of a serious crime who is not sympathetic. There’s an ugliness to that. People don’t like to talk about that. It is a factor.”

While a service member’s military record can no longer be considered when deciding whether to bring charges, it is still relevant at sentencing, Corn said. “When you have a sentencing hearing, no two airmen are the same in terms of their background, prior professional achievements, number of former colleagues willing to testify to their rehabilitative potential. So no two sentences will ever be the same.”

Only a handful of crimes, including premeditated murder and aiding the enemy, carry mandatory sentences, Corn said.

The National Defense Authorization Act passed in December added to that, requiring dishonorable discharges or the officer equivalent of dismissals for any service member convicted of rape, sexual assault and forcible sodomy.

Except for those offenses, Corn said, “every crime under the code is subject to a full and comprehensive sentencing hearing. Then the sentencing authority, whether a judge or panel, is instructed they have to consider from no punishment to the maximum authorized by the statute,” he said.

Ellis faced more than 43 years on the two dozen specifications she pleaded guilty to. She got eight months. Bass also faced decades in prison but was sentenced to six months.

“It’s very rare in a court-martial you’ll get a maximum penalty,” Corn said. Judges and jurors “are supposed to err on the side of leniency. They shouldn’t be lenient, but when selecting a sentence, you select one that serves the purpose that is the lowest in consideration.”

When considering a sentence, a panel, or jury, is instructed to begin at the low end and work up, Corn said. “As soon as they reach a consensus, they stop voting. They never even consider most sentences.”

“I think the most important point is the Air Force has been pretty diligent in bringing these cases to trial. Justice is defined through the process. The process woks, and it produces an outcome,” Corne said. “We have to be confident the outcome was right for that case. That’s the system we live in.”

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