Military Court-Martial: 101

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COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. — A court-martial is a criminal trial conducted by a branch of the U.S. military. Military members, no matter where they are stationed in the world, can be tried at a court-martial for criminal violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the military’s criminal code. In every court-martial, the accused member is entitled to a free military defense counsel regardless of the member’s income or rank; the accused can elect to retain civilian counsel at his/her own expense. There are three types of military courts-martial; summary, special and general.

A summary court-martial is the least severe. It is more administrative in nature in that a conviction at a summary court-martial will not appear on a member’s criminal record. However, if the accused is convicted at a summary court-martial, he/she could face a maximum sentence (depending on grade) of up to 30 days confinement, reduction in rank, and restriction to base. Only enlisted members can be tried at a summary court-martial.

A conviction at a special and general court-martial will result in a criminal record outside of the military. These courts are presided over by a military judge and a jury. A special court-martial is akin to civilian misdemeanor courts. There must be a minimum of three jury members, unless the accused request trial by a judge alone. The maximum punishment a member can be sentenced to is forfeiture of two thirds basic pay for one year and/or restriction to base. Additionally, only enlisted members can received up to one year confinement and a bad conduct discharge. An officer convicted at a special court-martial cannot be discharged from service or confined, so officers often face a general court-martial even for misdemeanor-level offenses.

A general court-martial is akin to a civilian felony court. There must be a minimum of five jury members (10 members for capital cases). The maximum punishment is dependent on what is allowable for each individual offense, but may include death, life in prison, and a dishonorable or bad conduct discharge for enlisted members or a dismissal for officers (which is equivalent to a dishonorable discharge). Before proceeding to trial, a preliminary hearing must be conducted for the purpose of determining whether there is probable cause to believe the accused committed the alleged offense(s). This process mirrors civilian and federal courts.

The burden of proof at all courts-martial falls on the government (prosecution) to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused member committed the alleged offense(s). Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is proof that leaves the jury members firmly convinced of the accused’s guilt. It does not require absolute mathematical certainty, nor does it mean that the evidence must be free from all conflict. It is the highest standard of evidentiary proof required in the military justice system, and it is the same standard used in civilian and federal courts. If found guilty at a court-martial, the member has the right to appeal his/her case, potentially all the way up to the Supreme Court.