A military appeals court has thrown out the conviction of a junior sailor who deserted his unit in 1978 and went on the lam for more than 44 years.
In overturning Airman Apprentice Antonio D. Miller’s guilty plea on a desertion charge, the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals noted that such a charge could not be applied more than three years after a service member deserted, as of the time Miller went missing.
The Oct. 23 appellate ruling added that neither the trial judge nor Miller’s Navy defense attorneys seemed aware of that fact, and no one brought it up during his proceedings in August 2022.
Miller had the right to know that the desertion charge to which he was pleading guilty involved a statute of limitations that had expired, according to the ruling, which flagged the “clear and obvious error” by military judge Donald Ostrom.
“We have very little confidence that trial defense counsel, much less (Miller) himself, was aware of the statute of limitations issue,” the appeals court wrote. “Perhaps even more revealing that (Miller) was not aware of his rights, every attorney involved in the military justice processing of (Miller’s) case appears to have been unaware of (Miller’s) right to be advised of the statute of limitations defense prior to pleading guilty.”
Miller could not be reached for comment, and his Navy defense attorney did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Before his guilty plea was set aside by the appeals court, Miller had been sentenced to a bad-conduct discharge, reduction in rank to E-1 and two months confinement.
A Tennessee native, Miller entered the Navy in 1976 after a stint with the Marines, according to court records. He deserted his Norfolk-based unit in April 1978 and traveled home to Chattanooga.
Miller “briefly returned to military control” after visiting a local Naval Reserve Center, where officials booked him a flight back to Norfolk and told him to report to his unit immediately.
Instead, Miller traveled to St. Petersburg, Florida, where one of his brothers lived. Shortly after, he was apprehended by civilian authorities and transferred to military custody, according to court records.
Once again, military officials told him to get back to Naval Station Norfolk, but Miller ignored the order. He instead vanished for more than 44 years until he was arrested in Tennessee on May 19, 2022.
During that encounter in the town of Soddy-Daisy, Miller provided his dead brother’s driver’s license to police when they asked for his identification. Law enforcement there soon realized Miller was not his brother, according to court records.
Miller was later transferred to military custody and taken to Norfolk, where he was charged.
At no point did anyone in the Navy legal system stop to check whether Miller could be charged with desertion, given the three-year statute of limitations that was on the books at the time of his alleged crime, the appeal court ruling suggested.
“The trial transcript, plea agreement, stipulation of fact and the record are silent as to the statute of limitations,” the appeal ruling stated.
Geoff is the editor of Navy Times, but he still loves writing stories. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at [email protected].
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