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Courts-Martial

A court-martial is military court. These military courts can determine punishments for members of the military subject to military law who are found guilty or may dismiss the charges based on the evidence and the case presented. In addition, courts-martial may be used to try prisoners of war for war crimes. The Geneva Convention requires that who are on trial for war crimes be subject to the same procedures as would be the holding’s own Soldiers. Additionally, most navies have a standard court-martial which convenes whenever a ship is lost; this does not necessarily mean that the captain is suspected of wrongdoing, but merely that the circumstances surrounding the loss of the ship would be made part of the official record. Many ship captains will actually insist on a court-martial in such circumstances.

The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) defines military offenses and trial procedures for courts-martial. As in all United States criminal courts, courts-martial are adversarial proceedings. Military lawyers of the Judge Advocate General's Corps (JAG) representing the government and appointed military lawyers representing the accused present and argue relevant facts, legal aspects, and theories before a military judge. The accused can also hire civilian representation at their own expense

The lawyers must follow military rules of procedure and evidence as allowed by the presiding judge. During these trial proceedings, the military judge decides questions of law. In non-capital cases, the accused may request to be tried by the military judge alone or by a jury, however, discretion in granting such request lies with the military judge. A court-martial jury is called a panel of members. This panel decides questions of fact as allowed by law, unless the accused chooses to be tried by judge alone, in which case the judge will resolve questions of law and questions of fact. Both the court-martial members and the military judge are members of the armed forces. Members of a court-martial are commissioned officers, unless the accused is a warrant officer or enlisted member and requests that the membership reflect their position by including warrant or enlisted members. Only a court-martial can determine innocence or guilt.

Make up of a court-martial

A panel of officers sit in judgment at a court-martial, while the accused person is usually represented by an officer who may be a military lawyer.

Crimes punishable by a court-martial

Courts-martial have the authority to try a wide range of military offences, many of which closely resemble civilian crimes like fraud, theft or perjury. Others, like cowardice, desertion, and insubordination are purely military crimes. Punishments for military offences ranged from fines and imprisonment to execution. Military offences are defined in the Army Act, Royal Air Force Act and Royal Navy Act for members of the British Military. Regulations for the Canadian Forces are found in the Queen's Regulations and Orders. For members of the United States they are covered under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). These offences, their corresponding punishments and instructions on how to run a court-martial, are explained in detail based on each country and/or service.

Levels of courts-martial

Three levels of courts-martial can be convened depending on the severity of the offense(s): Summary (which can confine junior enlisted to up to 30 days), Special (which, depending on the charges, can confine an accused up to a year and give a bad-conduct discharge to enlisted) and General (which, depending on the charges, can sentence an accused to death or life imprisonment, and give a bad-conduct or dishonorable discharge or a dismissal to officers). Officers are not tried at summary courts-martial and enlisted members have an absolute right to refuse summary court.

Unlike federal courts established under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, a court-martial is established under Article I and does not exist until its creation is ordered by a commanding officer. Such officers are called court-martial convening authorities. The legally operative document that a convening authority uses to create a court-martial is called a court-martial convening order

General courts-martial require an investigating officer, with at least the rank of captain (naval lieutenant),or other officer with legal training, to hold a hearing to review government evidence which outlines the elements of the alleged crime. These investigations are referred to as Article 32 hearings because they are described in article 32 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). In the Air Force and Navy the Investigating Officer is usually a JAG officer, in the Army it is usually a non-lawyer. The accused is present and has an attorney to examine evidence and testimony. The Article 32 hearing is a major discovery tool for the defense. The investigating officer then sends the report with recommendations to the convening authority, who may then refer the case for court-martial.

Convening authorities may decide on actions other than court-martial, especially when the government case is weak. The charges may be dismissed or disposed of at a lower level, and include actions such as administrative reprimands, summary courts-martial, non-judicial punishment, or administrative separation.

Courts-martial have universal jurisdiction over active duty military personnel, subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. This means that no matter where a service member is in the world, if they are on active duty, they can be tried by a court-martial. Under new laws to deal with contractors operating abroad with the armed forces, some civilians are also subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

If a service member is court-martialed and they feel that the result was unjust, then the service member can submit their case to the convening authority, which is the officer (usually a general) that originally had the service member court-martialed. This is similar to asking a civilian governor for clemency or a pardon. After clemency requests the service member may submit their case for review to the Court of Criminal Appeal for their branch. See Army Court of Criminal Appeals, Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeal, Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals, Coast Guard Court of Criminal Appeals

Cases can be further appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces and the Supreme Court of the United States.

As the final last resort, the convicted service member can ask for executive clemency also known as a 'reprieve', or a pardon from the President.

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