The AFCCA released its unanimous opinion in United States v. Bonior, siding with the government and affirming the sentence in its entirety.
Bonior opinion here.
Pursuant to a pretrial agreement, A1C Bonior pleaded guilty to fourteen specifications in violation of UCMJ Articles 92, 109, 128, and 134. For these offenses, a general court-martial sentenced him to a dishonorable discharge, confinement of 11 years, and other penalties. Under the terms of the PTA, the convening authority limited confinement to 10 years.
On appeal, Bonior raised five claims: (1) abuse of discretion by the military judge in accepting guilty pleas to some of the specifications, (2) denial of effective assistance of counsel, (3) an unduly severe sentence, (4) excessive punishment, and (5) a separate claim for ineffective assistance based on counsel’s alleged failure to utilize exculpatory evidence. The court dismissed (4) without discussion and considered (2) and (5) together. Finding no prejudicial error, the AFCCA upheld the entire sentence.
I. Factual Background
The events that led to A1C Bonior’s court-martial began in the fall of 2017, when he met JTP, a civilian woman who lived near Wheeler Army Air Field, Hawaii, where Bonior was on active duty. After they began dating, the relationship deteriorated and grew violent as Bonior repeatedly accused JTP of infidelity. Over the next year, Bonior physically assaulted JTP on several occasions. In the final incident, which occurred at the end of June 2018, Bonior seriously injured JTP, forcibly drove her around as she went in and out of consciousness, threatened her life, and refused her repeated requests to be taken to a hospital. Following this incident, a friend of JTP’s reported the abuse to AFOSI, who opened an investigation that led to a protective order. After violating that order, Bonior was taken into custody.
II. Bonior’s Claims on Appeal
A. Plea Inadequacy
Bonior contested the validity of his guilty plea to Specification 3 of Charge V, which charged him with assault by striking JTP in the ribs on 31 December 2017 in violation of Article 128; and Specification 3 of Charge VI, which charged him with kidnapping in violation of Article 134, in connection with the June 2018 incident.
For the assault charge, Bonior claimed that the military judge abused his discretion by accepting the guilty plea when Bonoir believed he was acting in defense of JTP when he struck her in the ribs with his fist while she was holding a piece of broken glass to her neck. The AFCCA disagreed, finding that Bonior’s own admissions at trial contradicted this claim, as he had admitted that his predominant intent was to harm JTP. The AFCCA also noted that the trial judge, counsel for both parties, and Bonior himself had agreed that the defense was inapplicable.
On the kidnapping charge, Bonior argued that the plea colloquy failed to support all the elements of the offense and the military judge therefore abused his discretion by accepting Bonior’s guilty plea. Again the AFCCA disagreed, finding that the military judge correctly informed Bonior of the elements of the offense and that Bonior’s admissions provided an adequate factual basis for his plea.
B. Ineffective Assistance
Bonior raised four ineffective assistance claims, alleging that this trial defense counsel failed to: (1) adequately prepare for trial, (2) move for a speedy trial violation under Article 10, (3) object to multiplicitous charges, and (4) utilize certain exculpatory evidence for the defense. The AFCCA rejected each of these claims on performance grounds. First, it noted that the defense team had prepared extensively, arriving early for trial, making several pretrial trips to Hawaii, speaking to multiple experts, and creating “in-depth color-coded charts” of evidence, among other preparation. The court also observed counsel’s sound strategic reasons for not introducing the mental health evaluations that they had obtained under R.C.M. 706. Second, the AFCCA dismissed the defendant’s speedy trial claim, describing counsel’s strategic reasons for not filing an Article 10 motion and that the defendant had waived the speedy trial issue by failing to raise it below. Third, the AFCCA found that the defense team had valid strategic reasons for declining to file a motion to consolidate certain charges and specifications on multiplicity grounds. Finally, the AFCCA rejected the argument that defense counsel’s decision not to call several witnesses and introduce evidence from jailhouse phone calls constituted ineffective assistance, as counsel declared that they had determined that the witnesses would not be helpful to the defendant’s case and that the phone calls contained no exculpatory information.
Reviewing the sentence de novo based on the entire record as required by law, the AFCCA found that the final sentence of 10 years was appropriate. The court acknowledged the serious and ongoing nature of Bonior’s conduct and that the resulting sentence was far below the maximum term. Therefore, the sentence was not inappropriately severe.