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The goals of a court-martial (plural: courts-martial) in the United States are to determine fact and achieve justice. As in all American criminal courts, courts-martial are adversary proceedings. That is, lawyers representing the government and the accused present the facts, legal aspects, and arguments most favorable to each side. In doing so, they follow the rules of procedure and evidence. Based upon these presentations, the judge decides questions of law. The court-martial members apply the law and decide questions of fact. Only a court-martial can determine innocence or guilt. General and special court-martial convictions are equivalent to federal court convictions.

There are three types of courts-martial—summary, special and general.

Trial by summary court-martial provides a simple procedure for resolution of charges involving minor incidents of misconduct. The summary court-martial consists of one individual, typically a judge advocate. The maximum punishment imposable by a summary court-martial is considerably less than a special or general court-martial. The accused must consent to trial by summary court-martial before the court can commence.

A special court-martial is the intermediate level of courts. An accused facing a special court-martial can be sentenced to no more than six months confinement (or a lesser amount if the offense has a lower maximum), forfeiture of two-thirds pay per month for six months, a bad conduct discharge (for enlisted personnel), and certain lesser punishments.

In a general court-martial, the maximum punishment is that set for each offense under the MCM, and may include death (for certain offenses), confinement, a dishonorable or bad conduct discharge for enlisted personnel, a dismissal for officers, or a number of other forms of punishment. Before a case goes to a general court-martial, a pretrial investigation under Article 32 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice[?] must be conducted, unless waived by the accused. An accused before any court-martial is entitled to free legal representation by a defense counsel, and can also retain civilian counsel at his or her own expense.

There are procedures for post-trial review in every case, although the extent of those appellate rights depends upon the punishment imposed by the court and approved by the convening authority. Cases involving a punitive discharge or dismissal or confinement for one year or more will undergo automatic review by the appropriate military (Army, Navy, or Air Force) Court of Criminal Appeals[?], unless the accused waives such review. The Court of Criminal Appeals can correct any legal error it may find, and it can reduce an excessive sentence. The accused will be assigned an appellate defense counsel to represent him or her at no cost before the Court. Civilian counsel may be retained at the accused’s own expense. Beyond the Court of Criminal Appeals, the accused can petition the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces[?] for further review. That court consists of civilian judges, and it can correct any legal error it may find. Appellate defense counsel will also be available to assist the accused at no charge. Again, the accused can also be represented by civilian counsel, but at his or her own expense. Beyond that court, it may be possible to petition the United States Supreme Court to review the case.

Compare with nonjudicial punishment.

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