WASHINGTON — A former Marine Corps judge who reportedly called those accused of sexual assault “scumbags” who deserve to be “crushed” is at the center of a widening inquiry into the impartiality of his court-martial rulings.
Convictions or sentences in at least 10 trials face challenge because of the comments attributed to Marine Lt. Col. Robert Palmer. As lawmakers urge more aggressive actions against military sexual assault, military officials are convening an unusual hearing to discover what Palmer said and whether it tainted military justice.
What happens next matters to men such as Richard Pearce, a former chief warrant officer based at one time in Beaufort, S.C. Pearce, like other convicted Marines now challenging Palmer’s actions, says the judge’s alleged statements revealed a prejudice against defendants.
The impending hearing will uncover more details, but at least one case has been turned upside-down. On Thursday, citing questions about Palmer’s impartiality, the U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals ordered a new sentence for a former lance corporal, Ian Bremer, who was convicted last year at Parris Island, S.C., on drug charges.
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“On this extraordinary record, the military judge’s comments cannot be deemed harmless,” the appeals court wrote. “His actions undermine public confidence in the military justice system.”
Palmer, an Iraq war veteran who has been praised by some of his fellow officers, is now stationed at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, though he’s no longer serving as a judge. He declined to comment Friday.
More broadly, the Palmer cases illustrate the complications that can ensue when top military and political leaders try to stiffen an organization’s resolve. Sometimes, judges and attorneys warn, a rallying cry can go too far.
“You wonder whether the judge’s alleged comments are indicative of the broader impact of the internal and external pressures to convict and punish accused military members at all costs,” defense attorney Richard Stevens said Friday.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces has ordered a fact-finding hearing before June 23 at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va. Though it could be applied in other cases eventually, the hearing was ordered for an appeal by former Marine Staff Sgt. Dustin Kish. Kish was a recruiter in upstate New York in 2009 and originally charged with having a relationship with a prospective female recruit. Palmer was the court-martial judge.
The Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals, until now, has generally declined to second-guess Palmer’s decision-making. For instance, the appellate court last November upheld the conviction of Pearce, the former chief warrant officer accused of fraternization and other charges, in a court-martial overseen by Palmer.
“We do not countenance the comments made by the military judge, however, we are convinced that (Pearce’s) court-martial was a fair and impartial proceeding,” the appellate court said.
The same court took a different tack Thursday in ordering a new sentence for Bremer, the former lance corporal and weapons specialist who judges say was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. The Bremer case differs from the others, in part because the June 2012 trial involved Palmer’s aggressive attempt to defend his judicial reputation once questions arose about his statements.
Palmer’s actions, the appellate court concluded Thursday, “would lead a reasonable person to question whether he lost his fairness and impartiality and became primarily focused on protecting himself.”