What Is a Military Court-Martial?

A court-martial is a military trial that resembles a civilian trial. There is a presiding judge, court martial attorneys, and in some trials there is a jury of other military personnel.

Soldier in courtroom

Court-martial can try many crimes that range from the strictly military, for example cowardice, insubordination and desertion, to crimes seen in the country at large, including rape, theft and murder. Crimes that can be tried in a court-martial and their punishments are listed in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

The UCMJ was written in the early 1950s to ensure the protection of military personnel who were subject to its laws while maintaining military discipline and the functioning of the armed forces

Courts-martial can also be convened to enforce martial law in an occupied territory.

There are three types of court-martial: Summary, Special and General.

A summary court-martial is used for charges of minor misconduct committed by enlisted personnel. Officers are never tried by summary court-martial. The accused is not entitled to legal representation from a military lawyer, although some branches of the armed forces will provide a free defense counsel. In all instances, the accused is able to retain non-military counsel at his own expense. There is no jury in a summary court-martial. Punishment varies with pay grade and consists of some combination of confinement, reduction in pay grade and restriction.

A special court-martial is a more serious trial. It has a military judge, prosecutor, military defense counsel and a minimum of three officers as a jury. If an enlisted person is the defendant in a special court martial, he can request at least one third of the jury be composed of enlisted personnel. He may also waive his right to a jury. Sentencing is limited to no more than two thirds basic pay for a year, and for enlisted personnel one year confinement and/or a bad conduct discharge.

A general court-martial is the highest level of military trial. In addition to the military judge, defense and prosecuting attorneys found in the special court-martial, there are a minimum of five officers in the jury. An enlisted person can request that at least one third of the jury be enlisted personnel, and can also waive their right to a jury. The maximum punishment in a general court-martial can range from confinement, dishonorable or bad conduct discharge (for enlisted personnel only), dismissal (for officers) and even a death sentence.

In every court-martial, the accused is presumed innocent and guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. For a sentence of death, all jury members must be convinced of the accused’s guilt.