Here’s a look at courts-martial. Court-martial refers to both the name of the court where charges are brought against members of the armed forces and the proceedings themselves.
In the United States, the laws of court-martial are set forth in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The UCMJ is the foundation for the military legal system.
The plural use of this word is courts-martial.
Court-martial is part of military law, which is separate and apart from civilian criminal law. It is empowered to determine the guilt, innocence and potential punishment of members of the military.
During the Revolutionary War, officers were responsible for ensuring the articles of war were read aloud to the soldiers under their command.
The UCMJ has three separate types of courts-martial:
General Court-Martial – The most serious court-martial. It consists of a military judge and usually at least five jury members (military personnel). These proceedings can only be convened by the president, secretary of defense, the commanding officer of a major military installation or by a general or flag officer. They hold the possibility of a sentence of dishonorable discharge or the death penalty.
Special Court-Martial – A court-martial which consists of at least three officers and a military trial judge. A special court-martial has the authority to impose only up to 12-months confinement, and other lesser punishments. This level of court-martial is similar to the misdemeanor court in civilian courts of law.
Summary Court-Martial – The least serious court-martial. It consists of one commissioned officer. These proceedings only handle enlisted military personnel, and the maximum punishment depends on the rank/grade of the accused. These proceedings are for minor incidents.
June 30, 1775 – The Continental Congress establishes the first 69 Articles of War to manage the conduct of soldiers. These articles are based on British military laws.
September 20, 1776 – Congress expands the Articles of War to include additional crimes, including punishments for desertion and for corresponding with the enemy.
September 29, 1789 – Upon ratification of the US Constitution, Congress enacts the American Articles of War of 1789, which includes the military court system.
June 4, 1920 – Congress enacts new Articles of War to modernize the military court-martial system.
May 5, 1950 – The Uniform Code of Military Justice becomes law. Accused members of the military are also given the right to appeal a conviction or sentence by courts-martial.
May 31, 1951 – The Military Code of Justice takes effect, replacing the Articles of War as the military legal system guidelines.
Notable Courts-Martial: (selected)
United States v Jackie Robinson – 1944
Jackie Robinson is given a general court-martial in Fort Hood, Texas, for civil disobedience, for refusing to move to the back of an Army bus. His trial is held in August 1944, and he is acquitted of all charges. (This is the same Jackie Robinson who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, and became a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.)
United States v William L. Calley Jr. – 1969-1971
First Lieutenant William Calley is charged in 1969 with the premeditated murder of 22 Vietnamese civilians during the storming of the small Vietnamese village of My Lai on March 16, 1968. In total, up to 500 civilians were killed. Now known as the “My Lai massacre,” Calley is convicted in 1971 of all 22 murders, and is sentenced to life in prison. Calley went on to serve about three and a half years before his release.
United States v Lynndie England – 2005
After being photographed with other soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Private First Class (PFC) England is given a general court-martial for inflicting physical, psychological and sexual abuse on prisoners. A mistrial is declared after she pleads guilty but then states that she did not know her actions were wrong. At her second trial, England is found guilty of four counts of mistreating detainees, one count of conspiracy and one count of committing an indecent act. England is sentenced to three years in prison and is dishonorably discharged. She is released from prison after less than two years.
United States v Chelsea Manning – 2011
Manning, formerly known as Bradley Manning, is charged with aiding the enemy and more than 20 additional crimes after leaking classified military and State Department information. Manning is also thought to have sent some of the stolen material to the whistle-blowing website, WikiLeaks. After being found guilty of violating the Espionage Act, Manning is sentenced to 35 years, but the sentence is later commuted after six years by President Barack Obama.
United States v Sgt. Robert “Bowe” Bergdahl – 2015
Bergdahl is held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan from 2009-2014. He is charged with one count each of desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty, and misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place. In 2017, Bergdahl pleads guilty, receives a dishonorable discharge and is fined.