What is a court-martial?

A court-martial is the military's version of a civilian criminal trial. It is designed to specifically try military offenses.

Twelve categories of people are subject to courts-martial, including military personnel, members of certain quasi-military organizations (such as Public Health Service members when serving with the armed forces), military prisoners, prisoners of war, and under very limited circumstances, certain specified categories of civilians. These individuals are subject to the military justice system regardless of where the incident in question occurred.

When a service person has been accused of an offense, the charges are investigated by the accused's commander or — if the charge is complicated or severe — military or civilian law enforcement officials. As with the regular court system for civilians, little if any of the information gathered at this stage is publicly available. After the investigation, the officer may do nothing, take administrative action, impose non-judicial punishment, "prefer" charges or send the case to a higher authority to prefer the charges.

"Preferring" the charges is the first step in a court-martial. At this stage, the investigating officer reads the charges to the accused off of a charge sheet. He or she then signs the list under oath before a commissioned military officer. Once charges have been preferred, they are "referred" to the appropriate court-martial. Typically, which type of the three court-martial proceedings the accused will face depends on the seriousness of the charges.

Summary Courts-Martial: Summary courts-martial review minor charges against enlisted service people, although the accused may object and ask that the case be referred to another type of court-martial. Officers, cadets, aviation cadets, and midshipmen do not face summary court-martial. Summary courts-martial are headed by a commissioned officer who does not need to be a lawyer. Except for the Air Force, which provides all defendants a military attorney, an accused facing summary courts-martial is not entitled to free representation by a military attorney but may hire a "civilian" attorney at his or her own expense. A guilty finding by a summary court-martial can result in a maximum confinement for 30 days, forfeiture of two-thirds pay for one month, and a reduction to the lowest pay grade.

Special Courts-Martial: The intermediate level of courts-martial is the special courts-martial, which try any serviceperson accused of a non-capital offense and certain capital offenses. Typically, a special courts-martial reviews offenses that would be classified as misdemeanors in the civilian system. The accused has the right to choose for his case to be heard by only a military judge, the military judge plus a three-member panel or a three-member panel without a judge. If the accused is enlisted, he may request that his panel includes enlisted service members. A military attorney is appointed to the accused. The maximum punishment for someone found guilty by a special court-martial is a year-long confinement, up to three months of hard labor without confinement, forfeiture of two-thirds pay per month for up to one year, reduction in pay grade and a bad conduct discharge.

General Courts-Martial: General courts-martial are reserved for the most serious offenses, typically classified as felonies in the civilian system. Before a general court-martial is convened, a pre-trial hearing called an Article 32 hearing is held. An Article 32 hearing may be waived by the accused. Article 32 hearings are similar to grand juries in civilian courts in that they investigate the charges to ensure the evidence supports them. Unlike a grand jury, though, the accused and his or her counsel may examine the evidence, cross-examine witnesses, and offer their own arguments. At the end of the hearing, the investigating officer makes recommendations to a convening authority to convene a courts-martial or dismiss the charges.

The accused has the option to be tried by a military judge alone, or a military judge and a panel of five members. Unlike civilian criminal courts, only capital cases require a unanimous verdict. Cases involving confinement for more than 10 years require a three-fourths majority. All lesser crimes need only a two-thirds consensus to convict. A general court-martial can adjudge any sentence, including death, that is authorized by the Manual for Courts-Martial that is consistent with the offense the accused was found guilty of committing.

Appeals process: Convictions from a summary court-martial may be appealed to a judge advocate who will review whether the legal and factual findings and sentence are correct. If the judge advocate disapproves of the holding, he will send the case to a general court-martial convening authority for a correction. If the convening authority declines to correct the holding of the case, the Judge Advocate General will review it.

Special or general court-martial convictions where the sentence includes death, dismissal from the service, or confinement for at least one year of particular officers are appealed to the branch's Court of Criminal Appeals. These courts are permitted to review the facts and the appropriateness of the sentence, in addition to reviewing for legal error. If the sentence includes death, appeal is mandatory. If the branch appeals court affirms the conviction, the accused may appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces in Washington, D.C., and, after that, the U.S. Supreme Court. Review of these appeals is discretionary.

Where courts-martial are held

Courts-martial can be convened in any location and have been held in tents or other facilities adapted for the trial and are routinely conducted aboard ships while at sea. Normally, however, courts-martial are conducted in a court room on a military base.

Each military branch has circuit trial courts in specific regions that oversee individual bases, installations and commands. But reporters should first check with the local base where a crime occurred or where the accused is being held.

The Army has six geographically located circuits, according to the Army Judiciary Web site (http://www.jagcnet.army.mil/USATJ).

The Army's 1st Judicial Circuit covers the Northeastern and Middle Atlantic States; the 2nd Judicial Circuit covers the Southeast; the 3rd Judicial Circuit covers the Southwest and Midwest; the 4th Judicial Circuit covers the Far West; the 5th Judicial Circuit covers Europe; and the 6th Judicial Circuit covers the Far East.

The Air Force has five trial circuit courts. The five locations are headquartered at Ramstein Airbase in Germany near Kaiserslautern, Yokota Air base, west of Tokyo, Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, Travis Air Force Base near Fairfield, California and Bolling Air Force Base in Washington D.C. Courts-martial are sometimes held at those locations, but a large majority of trials are held where the offense occurred.

The Navy and Marines have six joint judicial areas and circuits that are part of the Navy-Marine Corps Trial Judiciary. The circuits are broken up into the following regions: Northern with the circuit judge located in Washington, D.C., Central with the circuit judge located in Norfolk, Va., Eastern with the judge at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Southern with the judge in Jacksonville, Fla., Western with the current judge at Camp Pendleton Calif., and Westpac with the current judge located in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The location of the circuit judge may shift in both the Western and Westpac circuits depending on the location of the individual who is designated as circuit judge.

The Coast Guard has nine districts — oddly numbered now after years of consolidations and closures — and two maintenance and logistics commands. The 1st District is in Boston; the 5th in Portsmouth, Va., the 7th in Miami, the 8th in New Orleans, the 9th in Cleveland, the 11th in Alameda, Calif., the 13th in Seattle, Wash., the 14th in Honolulu, Hawaii and the 17th in Juneau, Alaska. There is also a Pacific Area Maintenance and Logistics Command and an Atlantic Area Maintenance and Logistics Command.

Reporters seeking statistical information and other important data regarding trials held by the individual branches should review the Annual Reports located on the court of appeals for the armed forces Web site.