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What Is a Court Martial?

The military has its own special court to try members of the armed forces or any other individual within the jurisdiction of the armed forces. Such courts are referred to as courts martial, and are ad hoc courts that exist only to try individuals when referred to by the convening authorities. These courts martial also include prisoners of war who are to be tried for war crimes.

A court martial tries individuals for crimes that are committed with respect to military law. There are 3 levels of court martial depending on the convening authority and the penalty given. A general, a flag officer, a commander of a military base, or any higher-ranking authority can convene a general court martial case. However, a special court martial case may be convened at the order of a brigade or regiment officer. A general court martial can try any offense and hand out any penalty whereas a special court martial can only hand out a dishonorable discharge and a short-term imprisonment. Another level of court martial is the summary court martial, which involves confinement of a junior enlisted person for up to 30 days. This type of court martial does not try the accused party, and the accused party has the absolute right to refuse a summary court martial.

Instead of a jury, a court martial has a panel of members composed of military officers and enlisted persons. The panel decides the questions of fact in the case as much as a jury does. However, the accused party may request to be tried by a judge only. The judge may resolve questions of fact and of law. The court martial alone can determine the accused party’s innocence and guilt.

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