A court-martial is a criminal trial for military personnel who are accused of committing the offences mentioned there (UCMJ).

10/17/20223 min read


In the "Punitive Articles" part of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, a court-martial is a criminal trial for military personnel who are accused of committing the offences mentioned there (UCMJ). Larceny, arson, manslaughter, and conspiracy, for example, are examples of some of these crimes that resemble crimes committed by civilians. Some of these are exclusive to the military, like deserting, mutiny, and insubordination.


Summary Courts-Martial

These are quick procedures used for enlisted service members accused of minor offenses. Summary courts-martial do not require a military judge or attorneys from the Judge Advocate General (JAG) office. Instead, one commissioned officer (normally an O-3 or above) reviews the facts, legal precedent, and sentencing guidelines before issuing a decision. A service member found guilty in a summary court-martial may be sentenced to up to 30 days confinement, 45 days of hard labor, restriction to a particular area for 60 days, one month of reduced pay, or reduction in rank. Besides the Air Force, the military does not offer free defense counsel for a summary court-martial.

Special Courts-Martial

The special court-martial is reserved for more severe offenses. It mirrors a civilian criminal trial, with specific times for discovery, pretrial motions, trial, and sentencing. A military judge presides over special courts-martial; a defense attorney is assigned to the accused under certain circumstances; and a trial attorney is assigned to the prosecution. A panel of three service members decides the facts of the case unless the accused specifically requests a judge to do so. The maximum penalties that can be assigned in a special court martial include one year of confinement, six months pay forfeiture, three months hard labor, or a bad-conduct discharge.

General Courts-Martial

The most severe offenses are prosecuted through general courts-martial. Like special courts-martial, they feature a military judge as well as legal representation for both parties. A panel of at least 5 members for non-capital offenses and at least 10 members for capital offenses decides the facts unless the accused requests a judge to do so (and the prosecution is not seeking the death penalty). The military judge presiding over the general court-martial may impose the maximum sentences allowed in the UCMJ or the MCM, including death, life imprisonment, or dishonorable discharge.


Commencing Charges

When a military member violates the UCMJ, the subject is normally brought before his or her superior officer (CO). If the CO has reason to think that the service member violated the UCMJ, she may order that the person be arrested and held for up to 72 hours (pretrial custody) while the CO chooses how to proceed. During this time, the accused must be notified of the reason for his apprehension. The CO may choose not to proceed with a court-martial and to impose some form of "non-judicial" punishment instead. The service member may appeal the CO's decision if he believes that the punishment is unjust.

However, the CO must initiate a court-martial within 120 days of the arrest if she chooses to do so. As an alternative, a court-martial may be called by the President, the Secretary of Defense, or the Secretary of the military branch to which the accused belongs. The "convening authority" is whoever calls the court-martial. The process of a court-martial starts when the allegations against the defendant are read to him in front of the commanding officer and a third, impartial officer. This is referred to as "preferring the charges." Both sides are given legal counsel and a military judge. The accused and the prosecution are then given the chance to look into the circumstances surrounding the case, including looking through records and taking depositions. In contrast to a civil trial, the inquiry may go on throughout the entire court-martial procedure.


The accused may then enter a plea after the prosecution presents its case. The military judge will only accept a guilty plea if they are confident that the defendant fully comprehended the charges against him and the repercussions and that the prosecution is not asking for the death penalty. The accused will be sentenced following the acceptance of a guilty plea.


A panel will be formed to decide the facts in the event that the defendant files a not-guilty plea and the court-martial goes to trial. The panel's members are normally commissioned officers with higher ranks than the accused who are from a different unit. Enlisted service members may, however, be added to the panel upon the accused's request. Prior to the trial's start, the panel will swear under penalty of perjury that it will make its decisions regarding the facts in an objective manner free from the influence of its commanding commanders. For their conclusions, the panellists might not face punishment. The jury in a court-martial is chosen by the convening authority rather than being drawn at random, unlike a jury in a civil trial.

A court-martial trial is similar to a trial in a regular court of law. A witness may be cross-examined and evidence may be presented by either side. Following instructions from the military judge regarding the relevant legal framework, the panel renders a judgement. In the event that the defendant is found guilty, the panel or the military judge will impose a punishment in accordance with the UCMJ's sentencing rules.

NB: This article is not a legal advice, and under no circumstance should you take it as such. All information provided are for general purpose only. For information, please contact



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