Judge reopens case against sailor convicted of molestation

SAN DIEGO — A San Diego federal judge has reopened a military court case over concerns that a sailor serving a seven-year term at Miramar was wrongly convicted of molesting a child.

U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel last week ordered federal prosecutors to respond to a petition brought by attorneys for Navy Petty Officer James R. Rich, who was convicted of aggravated sexual abuse of a child during a 2014 general court-martial in Norfolk, Va. Prosecutors are expected to file a response by Aug. 11, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Rich said his constitutional rights were violated when the court relied on hearsay testimony from a toddler 2-1/2 years after the alleged incident and in allowing a juror to disregard his exemplary military record, The Times reported.

Curiel’s decision to reopen the case is a rare step. San Diego-based attorney and military law expert Jeremiah Sullivan III told the newspaper he had never seen a habeas corpus petition where a federal court intervened in a military case, although he was sure it had happened before.

Rich was arrested in Virginia in 2012 after his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter alleged that she had performed oral sex on him. Rich professed his innocence and said the girl may have mistakenly seen images of a consensual act between him and his girlfriend.

A military judge agreed that the child’s statements more than two years later did not match what she had initially claimed, but still allowed her statements into the trial, The Times reported.

Following Rich’s conviction, the jury was asked to weigh his outstanding service record while deciding his punishment. According to the Times, one juror, a lieutenant, told attorneys involved in a separate case that he had focused solely on the alleged crime.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces in Washington, D.C., denied a request to reopen the case, ruling that the girl’s testimony was sufficiently credible. Rich’s appeal headed to U.S. District Court more than a year later.

Rich’s appellate attorney, David Sheldon, praised the decision to reopen the case, calling it the “first step in righting this injustice,” according to The Times.

Navy officials have declined to discuss the case while it is under appeal.