Courts-Martial Explained

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Manual for Courts Martial

A courts martial is a legal proceeding for military members that is similar to a civilian court trial. It is usually reserved for serious criminal offenses like felonies. For less serious criminal offenses or breaches of military decorum and regulations, a Non-Judicial Punishment (NJP) is usually held. NJP is known by different terms among the services, such as "Article 15," "Office Hours," or "Captain's Mast." 

The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) provides for three different types of courts-martial: summary, special, and general. These forms of courts-martial differ in their make-up and the punishments they can mete out.

Summary Court-Martial

A summary court-martial consists of one commissioned officer who serves as judge and jury. It can hear cases only involving enlisted personnel for less serious offenses. The accused has the right to cross-examine witnesses, to call witnesses and produce evidence, and to testify or remain silent. While they don't have the right to a free military attorney, they may hire their own and be represented by an attorney at the proceedings.

A summary court-martial can impose sentences up to 1 month confinement, hard labor, forfeiture of pay and reduction in rank.

Special Court-Martial

A special court-martial consists of a panel of not less than three members and a military judge, or an accused may be tried by military judge alone on their request. Enlisted members may request that the panel be made up of at least one-third enlisted personnel.

A special court-martial is often characterized as a misdemeanor court, and may try all persons subject to the UCMJ, including enlisted members, officers and midshipmen.

A special court-martial may impose any punishment except death, dishonorable discharge, dismissal, confinement for more than 1 year, hard labor without confinement for more than 3 months, forfeiture of pay exceeding two-thirds pay per month, or any forfeiture of pay for more than 1 year.

The accused has a right to be represented by a free military attorney or may hire their own civilian lawyer.

If found guilty, members can receive a bad conduct discharge, confinement of up to 1 year, hard labor without confinement for up to 3 months and forfeiture of up to two-thirds their monthly pay for up to 1 year. Enlisted members may be reduced to the lowest enlisted pay grade, officers found guilty in a special court-martial can't be reduced in rank or discharged as a sentence of special court martial.

General Court-Martial

A general court-martial consists of a panel of not less than five members and a military judge, or an accused may be tried by military judge alone on their request. Enlisted members may request that the panel be made up of at least one-third enlisted personnel.

A general court-martial is often characterized as a felony court, and may try all persons subject to the UCMJ, including enlisted members, officers, and midshipmen.

The accused has a right to be represented by a free military attorney or may hire their own civilian lawyer.

A general court-martial may deliver any punishment not prohibited by the UCMJ, including death when specifically authorized.

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