Private Ronald Gray is the United States military’s longest resident of death row. Only three other prisoners sit there with him at the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he has awaited execution since 1988. Private Gray’s case has been through numerous rounds of hearings, appeals, and petitions in both the military justice system and in the federal Article III courts. His most recent attempt at review has hit an interesting, and frustrating, roadblock.
Private Gray’s story begins in December 1986, when a spree of rapes, robberies, and murders took place at Fort Bragg and the neighboring city of Fayetteville, North Carolina. The victims included Kimberly Ann Ruggles, a civilian cab driver who was raped and murdered, her cab abandoned in the woods near Fort Bragg; Private Laura Lee Vickery-Clay, who was abducted, raped, and murdered, her body also abandoned in the woods of Fort Bragg; and Private Mary Ann Lang Nameth, who was raped and stabbed in her barracks room but survived the attack. Private Gray was arrested, charged with the above crimes, and convicted on April 12, 1988, by a general court-martial on twelve counts or “specifications,” as they are called in the military justice system. He was sentenced to death.
Private Gray filed a petition for a writ of error coram nobis in the first military court of appeals, the Army Court of Criminal Appeals (“ACCA”). A writ of error coram nobis is a request for extraordinary relief that asserts a fundamental error by that court or a lower court in a previous judgment, order, or conviction. After ACCA denied the merits of Gray’s claims of error, he appealed to the highest military appellate court, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (“CAAF”). It was here that Private Gray’s roadblock appeared. CAAF did not deny the merit of his claims but rather held that it did not have jurisdiction to hear such a petition in the first place. Furthermore, CAAF dismissed the petition with prejudice. This holding was issued about a year after a federal district court similarly dismissed Gray’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus for want of jurisdiction. Thus, Private Gray was stuck: both CAAF and the district court ruled that he needed to exhaust his remedies in the other court before his cause could proceed in their court.
This outcome is a significant development in the history of the military justice system and of the military’s capital punishment process in particular. Over time, the system has grown more protective of defendants’ rights—such as by liberally granting juror disqualifications and conforming rules of evidence and procedure to those of civilian courts—thus enhancing the legitimacy of military courts as a tool of criminal justice in America. But a growing tendency on the part of these courts to refuse to exercise their full powers of review, as in their summary dismissal of Private Gray’s petition, now threatens that very legitimacy.
This Recent Development proceeds in three parts. Part I describes the background of Private Gray’s case from his crime and conviction to his many appeals and reviews. Part II briefly tells the story of the last military defendant to be executed in 1961 and uses that as a starting point to discuss the evolving legitimacy of the military’s capital process. Part III argues that military courts possess the authority to review a petition like Private Gray’s and that failure to do so not only leaves Private Gray out in the cold but also weakens the legitimacy and independence of the military justice system.