The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously held that three military service members didn’t need to be prosecuted for rape within five years of the crimes’ commissions, finding that one of its prior rulings didn’t shorten the statute of limitations for such prosecutions under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The charged rapes were committed between 1986 and 2006. During that time, Article 120(a) of the UCMJ provided that rape could be “punished by death,” and Article 43(a), which was amended in 1986, provided that an offense “punishable by death” could be tried and punished “at any time without limitation.”

In 1977, the Supreme Court held in Coker v. Georgia (1977) 433 U. S. 584, 592 that the Eighth Amendment forbids a death sentence for the rape of an adult woman. Because of that ruling, the service members in this case argued, the crimes they were charged with were not “punishable by death,” and therefore the statute of limitations for those crimes was the 5-year period that applies to most non-capital offenses.

The service members argued that the phrase “punishable by death” in Article 43(a) means capable of punishment by death when all applicable law is taken into account. The U.S. government contended that the phrase means capable of punishment by death under the penalty provisions of the UCMJ.

The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) sided with the service members’ interpretation, and the Supreme Court granted review.

Authoring the high court’s opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the service members’ arguments “find support at first blush in contemporaneous dictionary definitions of the term ‘punishable'”, but “upon inspection, definitions shed little light on the dispute because they largely re-raise the question over which the parties divide: capable of being punished under what law?”

When you place the phrase in its statutory context, Alito wrote, the government’s interpretation is more persuasive. In the context of a uniform code like the UCMJ, he reasoned, “Article 120’s directive that rape could be ‘punished by death’ is the most natural place to look for Congress’s answer to whether rape was ‘punishable by death’ within the meaning of Article 43(a).”

The government also argued that a difference between civilian and military law in the statute of limitations for rape makes sense because rapes committed by service members can cause special damage by undermining unit cohesion and discipline, and in some circumstances may have serious international implications. Alito wrote that this logic seemed to have been on Congress’s mind.

If the court accepted the service members’ interpretation of the law, Alito wrote, “we would have to conclude that this provision set out a statute of limitations that no one could have understood with any real confidence until important and novel legal questions were resolved by this Court.” “That is not the sort of limitations provision that Congress is likely to have chosen,” he wrote.

Lastly, the court held, the factors lawmakers are likely to take into account when fixing statutes of limitations for crimes “differ significantly from the considerations that underlie our Eighth Amendment decisions.” Lawmakers may consider the difficulty of gathering evidence and mounting a prosecution for a certain offense, and that the trauma inflicted by rape and other sexual offenses can delay those processes, Alito wrote — a factor that plays no part in the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment analysis.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett took no part in the decision. Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote a brief concurrence to state his view that the Supreme Court doesn’t have jurisdiction to hear appeals directly from the CAAF.

The case is U.S. v. Briggs, case number 19-108, in the Supreme Court of the United States.

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