Contact Us

Courts-Martial: Know What They Are and How They Have Changed

Criminal Military Trials are different from civilian trials in many ways. Known as a court-martial, a military criminal trial follows specific legal procedures outlined in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Major updates were recently made to the UCMJ and, if you are facing a court-martial, you should know how they affect you.

In a court-martial, you are facing the United States in a court of law. Therefore, you need the best defense possible. At Patriots Law Group, we are proud to offer years of combined experience serving clients both in and out of uniform. We are committed to finding the best possible outcome for you and your family.

When it comes to the court-martial procedure, knowledge is power. Knowing your rights, responsibilities, and expectations during the court-martial process is key to getting the best possible outcome.

What is a court-martial?

A court-martial is the legal term for a military hearing for criminal charges brought up against a member of the armed forces. As outlined in the UCMJ, there are three forms of court-martial: summary, special, and general. Each brings a special set of circumstances, rules, and possible punishments, depending on the severity of the charges.

What is the difference between the forms of court-martial?

A military criminal trial can take on one of three different forms:

  • Summary court-martial: As the least serious form of military trial, a summary court-martial handles minor incidents (typically, what would qualify as a misdemeanor or petty crime in a civilian court). These are handled by one commissioned officer, who determines guilt and may give a minor sentence, no more than 30 days confinement.
  • Special court-martial: These procedures are used for more serious charges. Sentences can be more serious than in a summary court-martial, up to a year in confinement and, sometimes, the potential for a bad-conduct discharge.
  • General court-martial: The highest form of military trial is a general court-martial, similar to a felony-level trial in the civilian courts. These are used to try the most serious of charges. Sentences from a general court-martial can include any punishment the UCMJ allows, including dishonorable discharge and even life imprisonment or the death penalty.

What is the process for a court-martial?

A court-martial follows a similar procedure as a civilian criminal trial. First, someone brings the UCMJ violation to the servicemember’s chain of command, an investigation takes place, and, if warranted, charges are drafted and read to the accused. This procedure is slightly different in each service, the Army, the Navy and Marine Corps and the Air Force, but they all follow the Rules set forth in the UCMJ. If a General Court-Martial is sought, an Article 32 Hearing is required unless waived.

When the charges are referred to a court-martial the accused has many rights that need to be protected and there are many decisions to be made between the accused and their counsel.

You can choose to plead guilty or not-guilty. With a guilty plea, the military judge must investigate, through examining the accused, to determine if in fact he/she is guilty. On the other hand, a not-guilty plea moves the court-martial to trial, which proceeds much like a civilian criminal trial, but with a panel of military members instead of a civilian jury.

Some of the biggest changes to the court-martial processes involve judges and members. Previously, the accused would choose before trial whether to leave their fate to a judge alone or to court members with a judge presiding over the trial. If there was a guilty verdict, that same judge or court members would then choose the sentence—you could not switch. Now, you can. You can choose to have court members determine your guilt or innocence during what is called the findings portion, and then switch to allow a military judge to determine your sentence if convicted.

The number of court members who would sit on a panel was previously only set at a minimum: 3 for a Special Court-Martial (SpCM) and 5 for a General Court-Martial (GCM). It is now a set number. Now, if you choose to be tried by court-members, there will be 4 for a SpCM and 8 for a GCM.

Military juries don’t have to be unanimous. Prior to the 2019 changes to the UCMJ, two-thirds concurrence was required for any guilty verdict. That is now three-fourths. Anything less than that and the verdict is Not-Guilty. This is another major difference between military practice and civilian practice. In civilian practice, a non-unanimous verdict results in a mistrial. In military practice, the count of the votes determines the verdict, guilty or not guilty.

What should I do if I am facing court-martial?

When facing court-martial, know your rights and be ready to find qualified legal representation.

Over the course of her career as a top-rated Air Force military defense attorney, Toni O’Neill has tried more than 100 courts-martial. She has also helped to advise and direct the defense strategy and preparation for several hundred more. With Toni and the Patriots team in your corner, you know your defense is not only great – it’s the best.

Don’t hesitate – call (301) 952-9000 today to schedule your free consultation. The military justice system can be confusing to navigate, and we are here to help.