In this series on the difference between court-martials and civilian cases, we focus on criminal accusations that lead to life-changing and potentially life-ending consequences following a court-martial verdict.
Court-martials involve crimes and cases specific to the military. Servicemembers who violated a civilian law and are charged with a misdemeanor crime will have to appear in civilian court. Crimes involving violence or infractions committed against the military will result in court martial proceedings. While the process is similar to civilian proceedings, specific differences do exist.
Types of court-martials
Summary Courts-Martial are reserved for minor offenses and do not mandate military judges or JAG attorneys. Free defense is not an option unless the defendant serves in the United States Air Force. Based on the ruling, punitive consequences can involve any of the following:
- Thirty days of confinement
- Forty-five days of hard labor
- Sixty-day restriction to a particular area
- Thirty days of reduced pay
- Reduction in rank
Special Courts-Martial are proceedings that most resemble what occurs in civilian criminal court. Unless a judge is asked to make the final decision, a “jury” encompasses three service members who will render the verdict. Those found guilty face various sentences that could include:
- One year of confinement
- Three months of hard labor
- Reduction in pay for six months
- Military discharge
General Courts-Martial handle the most severe crimes, with the maximum penalty being death. Other options include life in prison or a dishonorable discharge. In addition, pleading guilty is not an option for defendants facing the death penalty. Those cases require unanimous votes by all 12 jury members, while life in prison mandates three-fourths of the panel.
The appeals process
Service members seeking criminal appeals will have to pursue that option with their military branch’s respective courts of appeals. All are still subject to the UCMJ. Civilian cases are adjudicated in circuit and federal appellate courts.
Far too much is at stake in court martial proceedings. Immediate legal counsel protecting the rights of a service member is vital.