What Is the Burden of Proof in a Court-Martial?

There are many questions you might have about military rules of evidence, one of which could be, “What is the burden of proof in a court-martial?” Whether the burden of proof is met can determine whether you are found guilty or acquitted. Repercussions for a guilty verdict are high in military courts — losing rank, being kicked out of the service, and time in prison are all possibilities. If you are facing a court-martial, understanding the burden of proof is important.

Understanding the Burden of Proof in a Court-Martial

The burden of proof is the need for one party in any legal case to prove that the claims they are making against the opposition are true. A court will not be able to issue a verdict or assign penalties without having enough proof to believe the allegations are true. If someone is accused of committing a military crime, the prosecution must satisfy the burden of proof by providing evidence that shows they are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard is intended to prevent anyone from being falsely convicted of crimes. The prosecution’s evidence must be so compelling that there is no reasonable doubt left in anyone’s mind that another scenario could be true.

Even if one member of the jury has some doubt remaining, this should result in a not-guilty verdict out of fairness to the accused. The need to prove the charges “beyond a reasonable doubt” demonstrates how seriously allegations of misconduct are taken in the military.

Types of Offenses That Could Trigger a Court-Martial

Military members may be accused of a number of different violations, and some are much more serious than others. Among the most serious are war crimes, which could include torture or sexual violence. Substance use issues are more common, as service members are prohibited from using illegal drugs.

Breaches of national security could have dangerous implications and are punished severely. If a military member leaks classified information, they could face extreme consequences.

Service members could also be charged with fraternization if they engage in improper relationships. For instance, if a superior officer and their subordinate have a sexual relationship, this could compromise the chain of command.

How to Defend Yourself Against the Prosecution in a Court-Martial

To first defend yourself in court-martial, you will want to work with your attorney to understand the charges against you. You should know the exact nature of the offense you are accused of participating in. This will give you insight into how the prosecution may try to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, you can combat their attempts more effectively.

Once this is understood, you will want to lawfully collect evidence with your lawyer. This will include any physical material or digital items that could contradict the prosecutor’s claims. If anyone witnessed anything relevant and can testify to your innocence, this will also be a strong piece of corroborating evidence to secure.

Your attorney will use this evidence to try to undermine that of the prosecution. This can be achieved by questioning the reliability of their claims or pointing out if any evidence was collected unlawfully. If the latter is true, the military defense attorney can file an official motion to dismiss the improperly obtained evidence. This could completely dismantle the prosecution’s case, which could end up being dropped entirely.

Entering a Plea Agreement

While there are many avenues to discredit a prosecutor’s case, sometimes the evidence they have is so compelling that it makes more sense to enter into a plea agreement. This is where the defendant will exchange a guilty verdict for a lighter set of consequences. For example, this could prevent a service member from going to jail or keep them in the military, just in a different capacity.


Q: What Is the Burden of Proof for the Defense?

A: There is no burden of proof for the defense. Rather, all of this responsibility is placed on the prosecution’s team that is raising the allegations. This means the defense’s primary role is to challenge their claims. They’ll attempt to prove there is not enough evidence to suggest their client is guilty. Even if one jury member feels the prosecution’s claims have not been convincing, it could result in an acquittal.

Q: Can You Be Denied Court-Martial?

A: Service members do not have any authority to deny a court-martial if formal charges have been filed and the military has decided to prosecute the individual. Commanding officers do have the authority to decide on a case-by-case basis whether a penalty should be reduced to administrative duties in place of a court martial. A court-martial is considered to be a “right” for military members who face any allegations of misconduct under the UCMJ.

Q: What Legal Rights Does an Accused Have in a Court-Martial?

A: Just like in civilian court, one legal right service members have in a court-martial is the right to be assumed innocent until proven otherwise. They also have a right to be informed about the charges the prosecution is making and the right to a court-martial, where they can bring legal representation. In court, the defendant and their attorney can cross-examine witnesses and present their own evidence to combat any arguments the prosecution has made.

Q: What Happens if the Burden of Proof is Not Met in a Court-Martial?

A: In scenarios where the prosecution was not able to meet the burden of proof in a court-martial, an acquittal of the accused will ensue. This means that the court-martial judge and jury were not unanimously convinced the individual was guilty. The acquittal will prevent the defendant from facing any serious penalties.

Contact Aaron Meyer Law Today

If you have recently learned you will be facing court-martial or are dealing with any other legal issues related to the military, having a reputable attorney by your side can help. Contact Aaron Meyer Law today to help protect your rights and ensure your case is handled professionally. We have spent years representing service members, and our experience can help us serve as your attorney.

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