How Does a Military Court-Martial Work?

By Betty Wang, JD on July 31, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

How does a military court-martial work? As U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning has been found guilty of espionage and other charges by a military court for his role in the WikiLeaks case, many may be wondering this.

The military justice system is somewhat similar to the civilian justice system. As seen in movies like "A Few Good Men," there are prosecuting and defense attorneys, a judge, and perhaps even a jury.

So aside from the fact that everyone is in uniform, are there any other crucial differences? There are many, actually. Here is a general overview:

3 Types of Courts-Martial

Under U.S. military law, courts-martial are criminal trials that are conducted by the U.S. military. There are three types of military courts-martial: a summary court-martial, a special court-martial, and a general court-martial.

Summary Court-Martial

Summary courts-martial are the lowest level of courts-martial in the system, according to an overview by the U.S. Army's training center at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Summary courts-martial are used to try fairly minor offenses.

The summary court-martial is presided over by one officer, who functionally serves as a judge. Interestingly, military defense counsel are not authorized to represent defendants in a summary court-martial; rather, defendants have the option of hiring civilian defense counsel at their own expense.

Potential punishments are also limited to things like a reduction in pay grade and possible confinement of up to several weeks.

Special Court-Martial

Special courts-martial are the "middle" level of courts-martial. They are comprised of a military judge, a prosecutor and defense counsel. The accused can request a "jury" of at least three officers, or request a trial by one judge alone.

Punishments can also be more severe than in a summary court-martial. Convicted defendants can face a bad conduct discharge, confinement of several months, and forfeiture of two-thirds of their pay.

General Court-Martial

General courts-martial are the highest level of courts-martial, and try the most serious of offenses. General courts-martial often authorize life imprisonment, dishonorable discharge, or even the death penalty. A defendant can choose to be tried by a military judge alone, or by a "jury" of at least five officers.

Unique to a general court-martial, a formal investigation (along with what's called an Article 32 hearing) must take place before the case goes to trial.

What's Next for Bradley Manning?

In Army Private Bradley Manning's case, he chose to be tried by a judge alone in his general court-martial. The judge will now determine Manning's sentence; he could face up to 136 years in a military prison, Reuters reports.

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