Today, I want to educate you about military courts martials. I should start out by telling you that I am NOT a lawyer and this article is for EDUCATIONAL purposes only. Please keep in mind this just a “101” overview about military court martials. It’s not designed to teach you every single aspect of it.
Courts martials are not that common in the military. Yes, they do happen from time-to-time, but most offenses are handled within the chain of command, with some other type of punishment, such as a corrective action, Bar to Reenlistment, FLAG, Article 15 or rank reduction. During my fifteen years in the Army I only witnessed one courts martial and I only heard about one other one.
Here are some basic things you should know about courts martials:
- The easiest way to explain what a court martials is to think of it as a military court
- It’s the military’s version of a civilian criminal trial
- In the military, there are three types of courts martials to include summary, special and general
- They can be held anywhere, but are typically done in a military courtroom
- Twelve categories of people are subject to courts martials to include Soldiers, Prisoners of War, and even some civilians
- In most cases, when a Soldier commits a crime, it is first handled by their chain of command: the chain of command decides whether to handle it in house or “prefer” charges
- Preferring charges is the first step in the courts martial process
- The type of courts martial used depends upon the severity of the crime and the rank of the Soldier involved (officer or enlisted)
What I want to talk about now is the three types of military courts martials. I will just share some bullet points to give you a brief overview of each one.
Summary Courts Martial
- This is only for enlisted Soldiers
- They are headed by one commissioned officer, a JAG Officer
- Only used for non-capital offenses
- Punishment is based on the grade of the accused
- The accused must consent to this type of courts martial
- Accused is not allowed to testify, have a lawyer or cross-examine witnesses
- Punishments could include confinement, hard labor, reduction in rank, forfeiture of pay, Bad Conduct Discharge, etc.
Special Courts Martial
- Used for non-capital and some capital offenses
- Consists of not less than three military members and a judge
- Has the judge, trial counsel and defense counsel
- Accused can ask for a judge alone
- Reviews offenses that would be considered misdemeanors in civilian court
- It may impose any punishment authorized except death, dishonorable discharge, dismissal, confinement for more than 1 year, hard labor without confinement for more than 3 months, forfeiture of pay exceeding two-thirds pay per month, or any forfeiture of pay for more than 1 year.
- Maximum punishment could include year-long confinement, up to three months of hard labor without confinement, loss up to 2/3 monthly pay for one year, reduction in pay grade, or Bad Conduct Discharge
General Courts Martial
- The most serious type of courts martial
- Reserved for most serious offenses, things that would be considered felonies in the civilian world
- They conduct an Article 32 pre-trial hearing before the courts martial
- The accused can choose between a judge or a panel of five members
- An enlisted accused can ask for up to 1/3 of the court to be enlisted
- Can receive the death penalty (depending on the crime), although very uncommon
What Type of Offenses Can Lead to a Courts Martial?
What I want to do below is give you some examples of crimes that could lead to a courts martial. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it is a good starting point.
- Accessory to a crime
- Fraudulent enlistment or appointment
- Missing movement
- Contempt towards superior officer
- Disrespect towards superior officer
- Assaulting or disobeying superior officer
- Insubordinate conduct
- Failure to obey orders
- Unlawful detention
- Releasing a prisoner without authority
- Aiding the enemy
This information came from the courts martial manual.
In summary, a military courts martial is the military’s version of a civilian criminal trial. Most discipline issues are handled in house by the chain of command with other administrative and punitive punishments. Courts martials are typically reserved for more serious crimes such as desertion, rape, murder, theft, assault, etc.
Whether you are an accused Soldier going before a courts martial, a small unit leader, or someone selected to serve as “the jury” during a courts martial, I hope you will take the time to educate yourself about the do’s and don’ts when it comes to courts martials. Be informed.
What are your thoughts? Have you ever participated in a military courts martial before? If so, leave a comment below to share your thoughts about the experience. I look forward to hearing from you.