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Understanding the court martial process

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Even if you aren’t a member of the active duty military, the words court martial conjure fear like no other. If you are a member of the military, a court martial can not only mean the end of your military career, but it can also mean hard time spent at a federal prison for the rest of your life, or, if you are being tried for certain crimes including treason, it can mean death. Let’s take a look at the court martial process and see what we can learn about this infamous military trial system.

The overwhelming majority of court martial trials are for members of the military that have violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice, also known as the UCMJ. As fans of military dramas like JAG can tell you, the UCMJ is just like the criminal code for civilian courts, it lists the laws and penalties for members of the military to follow, but there are other uses for court martial trials. If you are currently living in a United States controlled area and martial law has been declared, you can be a civilian and receive a court martial. Suspected terrorists being kept at secret military prisons in places like Guantanamo Bay, Cuba are also subject to court martial trials, although the legality of these trials is highly suspect. What sorts of court martial trials are there? Let’s take a look.

Court martial trails can be broken down into three main categories: a summary court martial, a special court martial and a general court martial. A general court martial is the most similar to a civilian court case and has the most similar appearance to civilian law. On the other hand, a special court martial is often the least serious of the three since there is a maximum penalty in this type of court martial of one year. Although a special court martial shouldn’t be taken lightly, a year in jail is still very serious. There is no real civilian equivalent for a summary court martial, so let’s take a look at that now.

A summary court martial is often the most straight forwardd and the least complicated. It is a bit unusual because you have one person, known as a judge advocate, who essentially plays the part of both defense attorney for the accused and the prosecution. The punishment for this type of court martial is quite minor and demotions are often the main result.

A general court martial is the one that most of us think of when we hear about serious court martial offenses. Just like civilian courts, the person accused of the crime can get free legal consul or they can hire a lawyer of their own. An investigation period occurs before the trial starts so that both sides can gather information, again, just like a civilian court.

As you can see, a court martial offense is quite serious, but when you break down how it all works, it really isn’t as different, or any less effective, than a civilian trial at all.

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