The general court-martial is the military’s highest level trial court, involving the most serious of offenses and penalties. If you have been cart-martialed with a general court-martial, you could be facing dishonorable discharge or even death, depending on the charges.
It is critical at a time like this to understand the procedures involved and to know exactly what you are facing. There are three types of courts-martial that include summary courts-martial, special courts-martial and general courts-martial. This is the final entry of a three-part series on the three types of courts-martial, this one focused on general courts-martial.
What is a general court-martial?
The general court-martial is the procedure for adjudicating high-level military crimes. As noted above, it is the most serious of the three types of courts-martial and it involves serious and capital crimes akin to felonies in the civilian criminal justice system.
A general court-martial can be called by the General Courts-Martial Convening Authority. The Convening Authority (CA) is usually the most senior officer on the base.
In every aspect of referring a general court-martial and the procedures involved, the general court-martial is extremely formal and serious.
Potential penalties in a general court-martial
A conviction in a general court-martial can result in:
- Life imprisonment
- Dishonorable discharge
- The death penalty
All of these potential penalties, which can include any penalty allowed for the lower courts-martial levels, are dependent on the specific charges.
Procedure for a general court-martial
Similar to any civilian criminal proceeding, you have the right to be informed of the charges levied against you, the right to remain silent, the right to legal counsel and protection against double jeopardy.
Anyone subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) can be tried in a general court-martial.
A general court-martial involves a panel of at least five members (acting in a role similar to that of a jury) and a judge, and you have the right to request that a judge alone rules on your case. If you are an enlisted member, you can request that at least one-third of your panel
- Article 32 hearing: You have the right to an Article 32 hearing, which is preliminary hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to proceed to a general court-martial trial. This hearing is generally scheduled as soon as the investigative officer in the case is appointed.
- Pre-trial preparations: Before the trial starts, the attorneys for each side will prepare for the case, which can include gathering evidence, preparing for witness testimony and cross-examination, and preparing pre-trial motions.
- The trial: The general court-martial trial proceeds much like a civilian felony trial. It includes jury selection, presentation of the prosecution and defense, witness examination, cross-examination, bringing evidence into the record and jury deliberation.
- Sentencing: The jury (or if the defense requested and was granted a judge-only ruling) will then rule on the case, either guilty or not-guilty, and lay down the sentence if you are deemed guilty. Sentencing is called “extenuation and mitigation” and it gives you a final chance to get your sentence reduced.
- Appeal: You have the right to appeal your case to the CA who will determine whether to reduce your sentence, dismiss the case or uphold the sentence. The good news is that there is no option on appeal for the CA to increase your sentence.
Every step of the general court-martial process involves the highest stakes and extraordinary legal nuance. Do not try to handle your defense alone and think twice before trusting an inexperienced defense lawyer.
You need a lawyer who has experience handling military criminal defense. A good defense attorney will help you understand every step of the process, will prepare you for your testimony and cross-examination and will fight aggressively to protect your rights in the proceedings. Facing a general court-martial will be the fight of your life, so make sure you have a strong military criminal defense lawyer on your side.