A high-profile case of alleged murder that has stretched on nearly five years and demanded decisions by some of the top officials in the Navy and Pentagon has taken another turn with a new appellate ruling.
The Navy-Marine Corps Court of Military Appeals released a decision this month in the case of Lt. Craig Becker, a decorated explosive ordnance disposal officer accused of murdering his wife on Oct. 8, 2015, by pushing her out of a seventh-story window in Mons, Belgium. A three-judge panel ruled in favor of the government prosecution, finding that a military judge had wrongly excluded prior statements from Becker's wife, Johanna Hove-Becker, in pretrial hearings in early 2019.
The government's appeal on the matter ahead of the court-martial, known as an interlocutory appeal, essentially left trial proceedings on pause for more than a year to await the appeals court's consideration. It's the latest in a series of unconventional developments in the thorny case.
Becker, now 39, was serving at NATO headquarters at the time of the alleged crime. Hove-Becker's death, after her fall from a window of the couple's apartment building, was reportedly initially ruled a suicide by Belgian authorities. But later examiners found the opioid tramadol and insomnia drug zolpidem in her system, according to reported charge sheets, and officials ultimately charged Becker with homicide, saying he drugged Johanna and then sent her to her death.
According to the recent appeals court ruling, the couple had separated in summer 2015 but remained amicable. But, the court stated, Becker had a "visceral reaction" when he learned Johanna had a new boyfriend. Her death took place the same day she'd signed a lease on her own apartment, after a dinner together in the apartment the couple had shared.
What followed in the case was years of hearings and administrative back-and-forth while Becker remained in Belgian custody. Navy officials, citing a status-of-forces agreement, declined to take jurisdiction in the case, despite petitions by Becker's attorneys. Now-retired Adm. Michelle Howard, then-commander of U.S. Forces Europe and Africa, cited concerns that evidence collected by Belgian authorities would not be admissible in military court if the case were transferred, according to a 2017 report from the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Ultimately, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis intervened on Jan. 2, 2018, ordering the Navy to take over the case. Among concerns cited in a petition to Mattis on Becker's behalf was that the case would likely not be heard in Belgian court until 2020 -- an irony considering that it has yet to reach court-martial in the United States.
Becker was released from Belgian custody in February 2018; on Feb. 11, 2019, he was arraigned at Naval Base San Diego on charges of premeditated murder, assault and conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman.
The Navy officer has maintained his innocence throughout; his defense attorneys have claimed that Johanna Hove-Becker dealt with a recurring mental illness that affected her behavior and led to her suicide.
The appeals court ruling, published July 24, states that the military judge, Navy Capt. Aaron Rugh, ruled in two pretrial hearings that statements made by Hove-Becker, alleging previous abusive conduct by her husband, were inadmissible at court-martial.
Hove-Becker claimed in August 2013 that her husband "threw her around their hotel room and strangled her" after learning of her infidelity, according to the court's summary. She reported the alleged abuse to multiple people, including a military police officer and the clerk at the desk of the Army Lodge where they were guests. She later made a formal law enforcement report that further alleged Becker had taken her ID and credit cards and changed passwords to their shared bank account, the summary of facts states.
However, she recanted all statements that evening following a joint counseling session, and the investigation into the matter was formally closed in June 2014.
Still, according to documents, Hove-Becker continued to tell friends and family that her accusations were true and that she'd taken them back only to save her husband's military career.
"She said he prevented her from contacting her friends and family while she was recovering from a surgery, and controlled who could visit her at their apartment in Belgium," the appeals court wrote. "She said he controlled how she could dress, prevented her from getting a tattoo, and destroyed her cosmetic products."
The prosecution argued in pretrial hearings that Becker killed his wife in part to keep her from reviving old allegations of abuse; his attorneys said that was just speculation and not supported by the evidence.
Ultimately, Rugh sided with the defense and excluded statements, saying it wasn't reasonably foreseeable that Hove-Becker's abuse allegations would have been revived.
But the standard, the appeals court found, was wrongly applied. At issue, the judges said, was the legal concept of forfeiture by wrongdoing. While a defendant has a constitutional right to cross-examine any accusers, that right can be overridden in cases "where an accused's wrongful actions prevent a witness from testifying," such as cases of alleged murder in which the witness is the purported victim.
"As the military judge's determination of the inadmissibility of certain prior statements by Mrs. Becker was based on a legal principle we now hold to be incorrect, we find his ruling was an abuse of discretion," the court wrote. "We determine the appropriate remedy for this error is to remand the case for additional proceedings consistent with this opinion."
Jeremiah J. Sullivan III, Becker's civilian attorney of record, told Military.com via email that he expects the next hearing in the case to take place within 60 days.
"We are confident that we will win and justice will prevail," he said.
-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.