What Happens in a Court Martial?

What to Expect in a Court Martial

The court martial process is the most severe legal proceeding a military service member can face. The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) is the set of legal standards and formal expectations for all members of the United States Armed Forces. Just as military members have their own set of laws, they also have their own legal proceedings when a service member violates any provision of the UCMJ.

If you serve in any branch of the United States military and are accused of breaching the UCMJ, you can expect to face a court martial. This process can be extremely daunting and stressful, and military criminal proceedings unfold much more rapidly than civilian criminal cases. If you find yourself in this situation, it is vital to know what to expect from the process, the value of legal representation, and what your case is likely to entail.

What Is a Summary Court Martial?

The lowest level of the court martial system is reserved for less serious violations of the UCMJ. Summary court martial proceedings are typically reserved for enlisted service members who commit offenses that exceed the scope of penalization under non-judicial punishment. While a summary court martial is the least serious form of court martial, sentencing in summary court martial proceedings can still include severe penalties like forfeiture of pay, hard labor, and confinement up to one year.

What Is a Special Court Martial?

If an offense eclipses what can be handled in summary court martial proceedings, the case moves to special court martial. This is generally considered the misdemeanor level of military criminal court and involves violations of military decorum and the provisions of the UCMJ. It’s possible for the accused in a special court martial to face confinement for up to one year, demotion in rank to the lowest enlisted level (except for commissioned officers), and forfeiture of up to 2/3 pay for one year.

What Is a General Court Martial?

The highest level of the court martial process is general court martial, and this is generally perceived as the felony level of the military criminal court system. Both enlisted service members and commissioned officers can potentially face general court martial proceedings for severe offenses, and the judge overseeing a general court martial has the authority to sentence the accused to any penalty allowable under the UCMJ, including the death penalty in certain situations.

How Does a Court Martial Work?

A court martial involves a violation or multiple violations of the UCMJ, so it is functionally a criminal case carried out by the military at the federal level. The accused should not expect a similar experience to what they would face in civilian criminal court; each level of the court martial process involves different rules, and the accused has different rights than they would in civilian criminal court.

For example, court martial proceedings do not include a full 12-member jury panel like civilian criminal courts. In a summary court martial, the jury panel will include at least three members. In special court martial proceedings, the accused may choose to be tried by a judge alone or a jury panel of three or more members. In a general court martial, the accused also has the right to choose a trial by judge alone, or they may undergo trial before a jury panel of at least five members.

When the accused is an enlisted service member, they have the right to request for one-third of the jury panel to be enlisted as well. These enlisted members must hold equal or higher rank than the accused, and if they are of equal rank, they must have obtained their rank prior to the accused obtaining the same rank.

The Court Martial Process

While the court martial process is very different from civilian criminal proceedings in most respects, there are a few similarities. One of the most important similarities is the discovery process, which involves the defense counsel obtaining and reviewing all documentation related to the case in the possession of the military. This is the fact-finding stage of the process during which the defense counsel will review the prosecution’s evidence and determine their client’s best available defenses.

In any level of court martial proceedings, the accused has the right to present evidence, call witnesses, offer testimony, or remain silent. Their attorney may also cross-examine witnesses called by the prosecution. After discovery but before the actual trial begins, pretrial motions can be filed with the military court. These motions may aim to suppress certain evidence that the filing party believes to be inadmissible, dismiss certain charges, or compel the government to call expert witnesses into the proceedings.

Once the trial actually begins, there will be a phase of opening statements followed by cross-examination, questioning of witnesses, presentation of evidence from both sides, and finally closing statements from both sides. The court martial process is usually much faster than the pace of civilian criminal proceedings. Also, unlike civilian criminal cases, the jury does not need a unanimous verdict to convict. Most court martials are decided by majority unless the accused faces the death penalty, in which case the jury must be unanimous in their verdict.

Potential Penalties for Court Martial

If a US service member is convicted in any court martial, they potentially face a wide range of penalties that may include:

  • Confinement, or incarceration in military prison. The terms of this penalty are determined by the level of the court martial proceedings. Summary court martial and special court martial sentencing may only include confinement of up to one year. General court martial can potentially involve sentencing of confinement for many years or even life in prison.
  • Forfeiture of pay. If a US service member is convicted in court martial, they will likely need to forfeit all their pay and allowances. Special and summary court martial limit forfeiture of pay to up to 2/3 of the accused’s monthly pay for no more than one year. General court martial conviction can involve much more severe forfeiture penalties.
  • Hard labor. Some court martial sentences involve compelling the accused to perform hard labor in a designated military facility for a certain period of time.
  • Demotion of rank. Enlisted service members convicted in court martial may face demotion to the lowest enlisted level. Commissioned officers who are court martialed cannot be demoted.
  • Dishonorable discharge. One of the most severe penalties for court martial is dismissal from the US Armed Forces. This will not only lead to a loss of military benefits but also pose problems in civilian life, making it harder for the accused to secure some type of employment, qualify for financial aid, or even live in certain places. A commissioned officer may only be dismissed from service in a general court martial.
  • Capital punishment. Though rare, it is possible for general court martial proceedings to prescribe the death penalty. This is typically only reserved for very serious offenses that occur during wartime, and the death penalty requires a unanimous verdict from the jury panel. The last time a US service member was issued the death penalty was 1945.

The penalties for court martial are quite severe, even for what may seem like relatively minor offenses. This is due to the fact that the court martial process hinges on the provisions of the UCMJ, and this military code of laws and ethics holds US service members to a higher standard than civilians. If you violate the UCMJ in any way, you may face non-judicial punishment for less severe infractions and court martial proceedings for more serious violations.

Why You Need Defense Counsel in a Court Martial

The court martial process can potentially mean the end of your military career. Not only that, but the penalties you face can inflict significant financial hardship and also interfere with your civilian life once you are out of the military if you are discharged from service as a term of your sentencing. If you face these penalties, you need military criminal defense counsel you can trust to help you navigate your case.

In special and general court martial proceedings, the accused has the right to defense counsel from a detailed military attorney free of charge if they so choose. However, hiring a private military criminal defense attorney can potentially provide a much higher level of defense representation in your case. Attorney Aaron Meyer has handled many court martial cases successfully thanks to his aggressive defense philosophy. Instead of trying to contest the charges you face, Attorney Meyer will seek to completely disrupt the prosecution’s case at its foundational level and has successfully maintained a record of zero convictions thanks to this unwavering commitment to the clients of Aaron Meyer Law.

If you serve in the United States Armed Forces and have been accused of violating the UCMJ, it is vital to do everything you can to fight the charges against you and preserve your military career. The right military defense attorney can make a tremendous impact on the outcome of your case. The team at Aaron Meyer Law has the experience, resources, and courtroom skill to help you navigate your court martial with greater confidence. If you are ready to discuss your defense options with a skilled military defense attorney, contact Aaron Meyer Law today for more information about how our firm can assist you.

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