Don't Panic

Your war questions Answered

What's a court-martial, and how does one work?

Court-martial is both a noun and a verb. It's the military court itself and it's the process of being tried in front of one. Military personnel can be court-martialed if their unit commander determines that they've violated a law that appears in the military's legal code, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (jeez, even their laws are in uniform). The violation can be anything from off-duty offenses like fighting in a bar or murdering your spouse to on-duty stuff like disobeying orders, desertion, espionage or sodomizing prisoners of war with glow sticks.

Before a commander's accusation can send a soldier to trial, the accused gets a grand jury-like hearing called an Article 32 (so-called because Article 32 is the section of the military code that requires it). Evidence for and against prosecution is presented and the accused gets his or her opportunity to examine the evidence and witnesses.

After all of the evidence is presented, the investigator running the Article 32 hearing declares whether there's enough evidence to proceed with a prosecution. But the decision isn't binding. Even if the investigator says, "No, there isn't enough evidence for a court-martial," the commanding officer who brought the initial charge can still send the accused to court-martial.

Like their civilian counterparts, court-martialed soldiers are entitled to government-funded legal representation. Military lawyers belong to a unit called the JAG Corps. JAG stands for Judge Advocate General. It also serves as a daily reminder of what kind of car they could be driving if only they'd opted for a job as a civilian lawyer. JAG provides lawyers for the prosecution and defense, as well as court-martial trial judges.

There's more than one way to court-martial someone. Abu Ghraib prison shutterbug Spc. Jeremy Sivits just pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year in jail by what's called a "special" court-martial. Special courts-martial are for middlin' offenses and have a jury of three soldiers, presided over by a military judge. A special court-martial can't sentence anyone to more than a year in prison. Other offenses recently handled by special courts-martial include unlawful absence, fights and fornicating.

The most serious offenses are handled by a general court-martial. A general court-martial has a jury of at least five soldiers and sometimes 12. Guilt or innocence is decided by the majority, except in death penalty cases, which must be decided by a unanimous jury.

The upcoming Abu Ghraib prison-related courts-martial will likely be the most paid-attention-to courts-martial since 1971, when Army Lt. William Calley was sentenced to life for the mass killing of civilians in the Vietnamese village My Lai. (President Richard Nixon later reduced the sentence.) Court-martial trivia buffs, take note: Both the My Lai massacre and the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal were brought to the public's attention by the same reporter, Seymour Hersh, then with The New York Times, now with the New Yorker.

Still, it's unlikely that the Abu Ghraib bunch will join the ranks of My Lai, and not all court-martialees go on to live in ignominy.

In 1925, Col. Billy Mitchell was court-martialed and convicted for insubordination. His offense: loudly bitching about the Army's refusal to build a decent Air Force. The Army nevertheless adopted Mitchell's air power model in time to win for WWII, and in 1946, Mitchell was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Another court-martialee of note was an Army lieutenant named Jackie Robinson. In 1944, Robinson pulled a Rosa Parks on a segregated military bus (Rosa Parks didn't pull her Rosa Parks move in Montgomery, Ala., until 1955!). Robinson was court-martialed and acquitted. Three years later, he was the Dodgers' first baseman.

Contact Andisheh Nouraee at [email protected].


Since 1988, CL Tampa Bay has served as the free, independent voice of Tampa Bay, and we want to keep it that way.

Becoming a CL Tampa Bay Supporter for as little as $5 a month allows us to continue offering readers access to our coverage of local news, food, nightlife, events, and culture with no paywalls.

Join today because you love us, too.

Scroll to read more News Feature articles

Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.