Court trials that take place for members of the military are called military court-martial. Many countries have separate laws and jurisdictions that specifically cater to military members. That is not to say that these laws and punishments defer much from regular civil laws, especially if the crime is serious, like for example rape, torture, or murder. But the courts cater more towards military trials which can be a bit different when it comes to deserting in a time of war or espionage from regular civil law. In the United States, laws for military court-martial are based on the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The UCMJ is set forth by Congress it basically defines criminal offenses under military law. The president of the United States can write rules and regulations through the Manual for Courts-Martial (MCM) to place into military law. The MCM itself details maximum punishments based on the offense itself. Usually if convicted under a court-martial it can be the same as a federal conviction and result in jail time, hard labor, dishonorable discharge, fines, and military rank reduction. Military court-martials have three levels, which depend on how severe the offense is and the rank of the military member accused.
Types of Court-Martials
The first and lowest level in terms of offense severity is called a summary court-martial. Enlisted personnel may be tried by this and it is similar to nonjudicial punishment, except for the fact that it may result in a federal offense. The maximum punishment for a summary court-martial includes confinement or hard labor without confinement for 30 days, forfeiture of two-thirds pay for one month, reduction the lowest pay grade, E1. If the accused is above E4 pay grade, a summary court-martial may not impose confinement, hard labor without confinement, or reduction except to the next lowest pay grade. Next, a special court-martial has jurisdiction over all military personnel charged with a UCMJ offense and is used for offenses of medium severity. They are made of a military judge and at least 3 military members as part of the jury. The maximum punishment that may be imposed by this type of court-martial is confinement for 12 months, forfeiture of two-thirds pay for 12 months, reduction to lowest pay grade, E1, and a dishonorable discharge. The most severe trials are called general court-martial and are reserved for offenses such as murder, rape, robbery, and torture. They are made from a military judge and a jury of at least 5 members. The accused can also choose to dismiss the jury and be tried by the judge only. For both special and general court-martials, the military member accused can choose to be represented by a civilian attorney at their expense according to the experts from Militaryadvocate.com. A general court-martial may choose to punish a sentence that is authorized by the manual for courts-martial, which may include death or life in prison.
Process of Military-Court Martial
The court-martial process closely follows civil criminal law procedures, however, there are some important differences. If a military member violates the UCMJ, the offense is brought before their commanding officer. If that commanding officer has probable cause to believe that the accused did in fact violate the UCMJ, they may choose to have the accused confined for up to 72 hours, which is called pretrial confinement, until the commanding officer decides on how to proceed. The accused may be notified why they are confined and the commanding officer could decide not to proceed with a court-martial and impose a form of non-judicial punishment. Most cases of apprehended accusers end up in non-judicial punishment. However, the accused military member may appeal to the commanding officer’s decision if they believe they are being held without just reason. If the commanding officer decides to proceed with court-martial, it must be within 120 days of arrest. Trials can also be assembled by the order of the President, Secretary of Defense, or the Secretary of the specific military branch which the accuser belongs to. The court-martial process begins immediately when the accused is read the charges against them. At this point a military judge and legal representative for both the accused and prosecutor. Both parties have the opportunity to investigate all facts behind the case, this investigation may continue during all parts of the court-martial proceedings which is unlike a civil law trial.
If the charges are approved the accused may choose to enter a plea deal. A guilty plea is only allowed when a judge determines that the accused understood all charges laid against them and their consequences brought forth as a result of these charges. A guilty plea is acceptable only if the prosecution is not seeking the death penalty for the accused. If the accused chooses to fight all accusations by not admitting guilt then the court-martial goes to trial. At a trial, a panel is chosen to hear and decide all facts. The panel is composed of members that are either commissioned officers and of a higher rank than the accused. The accused may always choose enlisted members to be on their panel. The trial itself is very similar to civil law court trials. Each side presents its evidence and has the right to cross-examine witnesses and challenge all evidence. The military judge gives instructions to the jury on the applicable law and then the jury itself issues a decision. If found guilty the accused is sentenced by the military judge according to the MCM guidelines.
The accused may choose to appeal all outcomes of the trial if they believe that the military judge or jury members made errors during the trial. However, in cases where the accused is sentenced to death, the conviction is automatically sent to be appealed. In all cases, the accused should know their rights and hire a proper military law attorney to represent them. The accused has the right to be informed of all charges, the right to remain silent, the right to a defense counsel, and cannot be tried for the same offense twice (double jeopardy).
For some people, there is no better way to show your patriotism than joining the military. However, no one is above the law and being in the military is no excuse for anyone to break it. Legal representation is always necessary, as innocence cannot be proven without the help of one. Keep in mind that no one is safe from the hands of justice and heroes are no exemption.