The world of military law is quite different than civilian law. There are things that are considered offenses under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice that would never fly in civilian court, and for good reason. The military can’t tolerate certain things because the undermine the readiness of the armed forces.
Yet in many cases, the two are quite similar. After all, if two people try to hurt one another, there’s not a lot of difference.
Which is why I personally found a Marine’s attempted manslaughter charges being overturned quite interesting.
A Marine sentenced to 18 months’ confinement and a bad-conduct discharge after a barracks confrontation turned bloody may now end up free, after a military appeals court determined that the presiding judge wrongly instructed jury members in the case.
Pfc. Mickey W. Johnson, an aircraft maintainer stationed at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, was convicted on charges including attempted manslaughter in April 2018. After just three weeks living with his roommate, identified in court documents as Lance Cpl. V, the tension between the two was toxic and threats were common.
But even though a showdown one evening devolved into a knife fight that sent Lance Cpl. V to the hospital, the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Military Appeals determined earlier this month that it could have begun as justifiable self-defense — a point that may not have been made effectively ahead of deliberations on the case.
The full-court published decision, released April 15 and delivered by Senior Judge Navy Capt. Arthur Gaston, found that the judge should have told members that Johnson was within his rights to display knives in an attempt to deter aggression.
The judges pointed out the size difference between the two Marines: Johnson was 5 feet 9 inches and weighed 140 pounds, while Lance Cpl. V was 6 feet 5 inches and 200 pounds.
Because of the size mismatch, Johnson said he needed ample opportunity to head off potential fights.
“[Johnson’s defense] argues these requested instructions were necessary because Appellant was a ‘little man’ who had a legal right to take reasonable measures to protect himself, ‘rather than take [the] chance … of being knocked down and stamped into a jelly,’” the court wrote in its discussion of the case, citing previous decisions.
According to the court’s account of the encounter, the showdown between the two Marines happened after weeks of trading insults. Johnson at one point wondered aloud if he’d “rather see LCpl V “with his throat slit or set on fire,” the court stated.
It’s an interesting point, one that applies to civilian contexts as well. Johnson was a small guy. Trust me, I’m 5’8″ and enlisted in the Navy at 135 lbs. I know pretty much what Johnson looked like.
Squaring off against someone who is 6’5″ and 200 lbs is something else entirely. They have every physical advantage and may well be able to hurt or even kill you, regardless of whether they’re armed or not.
The jury should have been instructed to consider that and they weren’t. That means Johnson gets a new trial.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Johnson will walk. The court-martial may still result in him being punished, but at least now they’ll have to consider the size disparity as a potential mitigating factor.