Understanding the Types of Military Court-Martial

Military court-martials are trials conducted in courts subjected to military laws. America has one of the world’s biggest militaries thus in the United States the laws of a court-martial are set forth in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), which is the foundation of the military legal system.

Military law in many countries is usually separate and apart from civilian criminal law. It has the power to determine guilt, innocence, and punishment of all members of the military irrespective of a war. Military law is complex and an accused should hire lawyers for court-martial defense, especially if the charge is very severe. This would include both general and special court-martial trials. But before we cover these types of court-martial and the summary court-martial, let’s take a look at the history of US military laws.

History of US Military Laws

On June 30, 1775, the continental congress established the first 69 articles of war to manage soldiers, these first 69 articles of war were based on British military laws. On September 20, 1776, Congress expanded the articles of war to include crimes and punishments for desertion or collaborating with the enemy. By September 29, 1789, after the ratification of the US Constitution, the congress brought forth the American articles of war which included the military court system. June 4, 1920, Congress enacted new articles of war to align with a more modern military system. On May 5, 1950, the Uniform Code of Military Justice became law. Members of the military that were accused were also given the right to appeal a conviction or sentence. On May 31, 1951, the Military Code of Justice took effect as the military legal system set different guidelines. In the United States, the UCMJ has three different types of courts-martial. General court-martial, special court-martial, and summary court-martial. If we want to compare these military trial terms to civilian trial terms, a general court-martial is sometimes viewed to be similar to a felony trial and a special court-martial is sometimes viewed to be similar to a misdemeanor trial.  

General Court-Martial

A general court-martial is the most serious one, in the United States, it is made by a military judge and at least 5 jury members which are usually military personnel. The accused may request to be tried alone by only a military judge. The proceedings can only be summoned by either the president, secretary of defense, commanding officer, general or flag officer. The possibility of sentences includes dishonorable discharge and the death penalty. A general court-martial can be compared to a felony court. If a crime violates the military and state civilian law, the military member could be tried by both the military court and the civilian court. 

Special Court-Martial

A Special court-martial is made out of at least 3 officers and a military judge. However, the accused can request to be tried by a military judge alone. This type of court-martial can only punish one for only 12 months of confinement or other lesser punishment, except for, hard labor without confinement for more than 3 months, forfeiture of pay exceeding ⅔ pay per month, or any forfeiture of pay for more than 1 year. This level of court-martial can be compared to and is similar to the misdemeanor court in regular civilian courts. 

Summary Court-Martial

This is the least serious court-martial which consists of one commissioned officer. The court proceedings handle military personnel and the punishment depends on the rank of the accused. The punishments handed out during summary court-martial are usually for minor incidents and are essentially enhanced administrative hearings that do not result in a federal criminal conviction. For enlisted military members that are above E4, a summary court may impose any punishment, not forbidden by the law except death, dismissal, dishonorable discharge, and confinement for more than a month, hard labor with no confinement for more than 45 days, restriction to specified limits for more than 2 months, or forfeiture of more than 2/3 of 1-month pay. For all other enlisted members, the summary court-martial may impose confinement for not more than one month and reduce a military member to the lowest pay grade of E1.

Any summary court-martial accused has a right to refuse trial, but does not have the right to be represented by an attorney, however, they do have the right to cross-examine witnesses, to come up with evidence or call up witnesses to the stands, and also to testify or remain silent.

The following cases are some notable-court martial cases: 

The United States vs Jackie Robinson (1944)

Jackie Robinson is given a general court-martial due to civil disobedience, for refusing to move to the back of the Army bus. He was acquitted of all charges in 1944 and went on to have a spectacular career in Major League Baseball in 1947 and ended up in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. 

The United States vs William L Calley Jr. (1969-1971)

First Lieutenant William Calley was charged in 1969 with the premeditated murder of 22 Vietnamese civilians during a storming of a small Village in My Lai, Vietnam. Calley was sentenced to life in prison, however, they only served about 3.5 years before being released. 

The United States vs Lynndie England (2005)

England was photographed with other soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. A mistrial is declared after she pleads guilty, however, she stated that she did not know her actions were wrong. At her second trial, England is found guilty of four counts of mistreating detainees, along with one count of conspiracy and one count of committing an indecent act. She is sentenced to 3 years in prison and dishonorably discharged.

The United States vs Chelsea Manning (2011)

Manning is charged with aiding the enemy and more than 20 crimes for leaking classified military information to the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks. Manning was found guilty of violating the Espionage Act and sentenced to 35 years, however, this sentence was later reduced by Barack Obama after serving 6 years. 

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