Fairness of proceedings in 'Tailhook' is criticized

June 19, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

SAN DIEGO -- Navy officials presiding over disciplinary hearings for aviators accused of wrongdoing in the Tailhook sex scandal were warned by a military legal officer that the Navy has not passed "the test" in handling the cases "fairly and appropriately."

In an astonishingly candid internal memo, Capt. Charles E. Ellis, Navy legal services officer in Norfolk, Va., said that in some cases defense attorneys were justified when they complained that they were not allowed ample time to defend their clients.

Captain Ellis' memo specifically referred to a stinging comment made by Coast Guard Lt. Jeffrey C. Good on Wednesday about the disciplinary proceedings, which are being held in Norfolk. Lieutenant Good, who is representing an officer whose case has been ordered to the military's equivalent of a grand jury hearing, charged that the "Navy is not interested in justice but a body count."

Lieutenant Good had requested a continuance so he could adequately prepare his client's defense. The request was denied by Vice Adm. J. Paul Reason, who was appointed to mete out punishment to the officers recommended for disciplinary action for their roles in the scandal.

"I think the denial was a mistake," Captain Ellis said in his memo, and he urged Navy officials, including a key legal adviser to Admiral Reason, to urge the admiral to reconsider his denial.

Captain Ellis also suggested that Lieutenant Good had a valid argument when he complained that "the Navy had nearly two years and teams of investigators and lawyers working on the case and that [Lieutenant Good] only got [notification of] the charges Monday and was expected to go to the [grand jury hearing] in less than two weeks."

Captain Ellis concluded his brief memo with the reminder that he had warned Navy prosecutors before the disciplinary hearings began that "the military justice system and [Navy prosecutors] were going to be under the gun to demonstrate that these cases could be handled fairly and appropriately."

"I'm beginning to get very concerned that we're not passing the test," Captain Ellis said in the memo.

In a telephone interview from his Virginia home Friday, Captain Ellis explained that the "bottom-line thrust of the memo are my concerns with the perception that we weren't responding appropriately [to defense complaints] based on stories in the press."

Indeed, in another memo dated April 28 and sent to Adm. William L. Schackte, Navy judge advocate general, Captain Ellis expressed concern that evidence presented in some cases investigated by agents from the Department of Defense's inspector general's office was less than conclusive.

He specifically referred to cases expected to end up in courts-martial or grand jury hearings.

"Given the information I have received regarding the state of the evidence in the [inspector general's] report, it will probably be necessary to substantially re-investigate the cases."

Several civilian and military defense attorneys interviewed by the Los Angeles Times complained of shoddy investigations by the inspector general's agents. Several attorneys charged that the agents lied in their reports.

In a June 14 letter to Inspector General Dereck J. Vander Schaaf, Washington defense attorney Charles W. Gittins complained about the investigators' "overreaching and overbearing" interrogation of witnesses.

"Numerous witnesses complained that the results of the interviews prepared after their interviews were inaccurate and agents made conclusions or statements that had never been made by the witnesses," wrote Mr. Gittins.

Mr. Gittins charged that when the inaccuracies in the agents' reports were pointed out to them, the agents refused to correct them and instead explained to the aviators that "the report is not sworn testimony."

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