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Military and Native American Criminal Justice - Court-martials

special accused proceedings judge

A court-martial is a military court of officers appointed to try a person accused of seriously violating military law. The offender appears before a court of several military officers who will decide his or her case. There are three different types of court-martial—summary, special, and general.

Summary court-martials hear minor offenses committed by enlisted men and women, not officers. Sentences cannot exceed one month of confinement, forty-five days of hard labor, limited pay loss, or a reduction in military rank. The process is simple and does not provide legal safeguards for the accused such as an attorney. For this reason, summary court-martials can only be conducted if the accused has agreed to the proceedings.

In summary court-martials, the trial is conducted by one military officer. This kind of proceeding has declined in recent years and been replaced by administrative proceedings before the defendant's commander. The commander can impose fines or a reduction in rank.

The proceedings of a court-martial, a military court of officers appointed to try a person accused of seriously violating military law. (The Library of Congress)



The second type or special court-martial can hear all types of offenses and be assembled by lower ranking commanders. These cases are run by a military judge and three military service members, unless the accused requests only a judge alone. The three members serve as a jury to determine guilt and decide a penalty. Penalties from special court-martials can include imprisonment up to six months, three months of hard labor, a fine, or a "dishonorable discharge." Dishonorable discharges force defendants to leave the military, often with the loss of military benefits such as special insurance policies and retirement funds.

The third kind of court-martial is the general court-martial, which tries major felonies and hands down the harshest punishments. By the early twenty-first century, general court-martials were the most frequently used proceedings, consisting of a military judge and five military members as a jury. Like special court-martials, defendants can request a judge with no jury.

Unlike other court-martials, however, general court-martials can only be convened by high-ranking government officials such as the U.S. president, the secretary of a federal department (like the secretary of defense), or a commander. Defendants are allowed an attorney, who must be a military lawyer, and a detailed record of the court proceedings is kept like in civil courts. General court-martials can impose the death penalty, high fines, imprisonment, and dishonorable discharges.


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