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Summary, General and Special Courts-Martial: How Serious Are They?

A court-martial is a military court that tries cases involving military offenses. The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) establishes three forms of courts-martial, which differ in their composition and the penalties they can impose. 

As in other criminal courts, an accused individual must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The three types of courts-martial are:

  • Summary Court-Martial. A summary court-martial consists of one commissioned officer and tries only noncapital offenses. In this court-martial, the right to an attorney is not guaranteed. Available punishments, which depend on the grade of the accused individual, are less severe than in the other two courts-martial. For example, a sentence of confinement cannot be longer than one month and the maximum duration of hard labor is 45 days.
  • Special Court-Martial. A special court-martial is composed of three members and a military judge unless the accused requests trial by military judge alone. A special court-martial is akin to a misdemeanor court. The punishments that may be imposed in the special courts-martial are limited, but are more severe than those that may be imposed by summary courts-martial. For example, maximum confinement is one year and hard labor cannot be imposed for more than three months.
  • General Court-Martial. A general court-martial is akin to a felony court and is composed of five members and a military judge. As with a special court-martial, an accused may request to be tried by only a military judge. A general court-martial is by far the most serious of the three since it may impose any punishment not prohibited by the UCMJ, including death.

If you may be tried in a court-martial for any type of military offense, consult a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney who can provide you with assertive and diligent representation in these unique cases.

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