Thanks to hit television shows like JAG, which lasted an astonishing ten full seasons on the air, more people today have a better working knowledge of how the military criminal court works than ever before, but it would be foolish to assume that everything we saw on a television show is, indeed, accurate. Let’s take a look at just a few of the differences between a military court and a civilian court and see which style of justice is often faster and fairer.
Before we start, there are times when the two jurisdictions can fight over trying a case. If a soldier lives on an American military base within the United States and commits a crime outside of his or her air base, the state or federal authorities can step in and claim the right to prosecute and try the case, but since the military is such a powerful branch of the federal government, in most cases, if they wish to try a case involving a member of the military in their own courts, they are able to.
One question many people ask is if a civilian, or someone who is a citizen of the United States but not a member of the military, can be tried in a military court instead of a civilian court. Until very recently, the answer was no, but due to provisions in the Patriot Act that created military prisons in places like Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, American citizens and citizens from other countries are now being tried in these military courts. The legality of these trials is under much speculation and it is thought, and hoped by many, that once the current administration leaves office that these trials will be ended.
One major difference between the military court system and the civilian court system is the selection of the jury. As most of us know, the criteria for selecting a jury for a civilian trial is fairly loose. You simply receive a jury notice in the mail, show up and you have a chance of being picked or not. In a military court, the criteria are much stricter. Most military juries are made up of commissioned officers who are often highly trained, highly intelligent and highly respected. Most observers agree that the military court version is far superior to the civilian court style.
There are also no hung juries in military courts. A hung jury is when a jury that needs unanimous consent to convict or clear a defendant can’t decide one way or the other. In most cases, a mistrial is declared and the trial starts over from scratch. Some cases have experienced multiple trials that all end up in hung juries for various reasons. In military courts, hung juries are impossible since you only need two thirds of a majority for any decision or verdict to be reached.
These are just a few of the main differences between criminal law in the United States and military law.