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A court-martial (plural courts-martial, as "martial" is postpositive) is a military court. A court-martial is empowered to determine the guilt of members of the armed forces subject to military law, and, if the defendant is found guilty, to decide upon punishment. In addition, courts-martial may be used to try prisoners of war for war crimes. The Geneva Convention requires that POWs who are on trial for war crimes be subject to the same procedures as would be the holding military's own forces.
Most navies have a standard court-martial which convenes whenever a ship is lost; this does not presume that the captain is suspected of wrongdoing, but merely that the circumstances surrounding the loss of the ship be made part of the official record. Most military forces maintain a judicial system that tries defendants for breaches of military discipline. Some countries like France and Germany have no courts-martial in time of peace and use civilian courts instead.
Most commonly, courts-martial in the United States are convened to try members of the U.S. military for violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), which is the U.S. military's criminal code. However, they can also be convened for other purposes, including military tribunals and the enforcement of martial law in an occupied territory. Courts-martial are governed by the rules of procedure and evidence laid out in the Manual for Courts-Martial, which contains the Rules for Courts-Martial, Military Rules of Evidence, and other guidance. There are three types: Special, Summary, and General.
There are three types of Federal courts-martial—summary, special, and general. A conviction at a general court-martial is equivalent to a civilian conviction in a federal district court or a state superior court and a conviction is a felony. Special courts-martial are considered "federal misdemeanor courts" akin to district state courts, because they cannot impose confinement longer than one year. Summary courts-martial have no civilian equivalent, other than perhaps to noncriminal magistrate's proceedings, in that they have been declared by the US Supreme Court to be administrative in nature, because there is no right to counsel, though as a benefit, the Air Force provides such to Airmen so charged. Enlisted personnel must consent to a trial by summary court-martial and officers may not be tried in such proceedings. A summary court conviction is legally deemed to be akin to an Article 15 proceeding.
Trial by summary court-martial provides a simple procedure for resolution of charges of relatively minor misconduct committed by enlisted members of the military. Officers may not be tried by summary court-martial. The enlisted accused must consent to be tried by summary court-martial, and if consent is not provided then the command may dispose of the allegation through other means, including directing that the case be tried before a special or general court-martial. The summary court-martial consists of one individual, who is not a military attorney, but still functions as judge and acts as the sole finder of fact. The maximum punishment at a summary court-martial varies with the accused's paygrade. If the accused is in the pay grade of E-4 or below, he or she can be sentenced to 30 days of confinement, reduction to pay grade E-1, or restriction for 60 days. Punishments for service members in paygrades E-5 and higher (e.g., Sergeant in the Army or Marines, Petty Officer 2nd Class in the Navy) are similar, except that they can only be reduced one paygrade and cannot be confined. An accused before a summary court-martial is not entitled to receive legal representation from military defense counsel. However, while not required by law, some services, such as the United States Air Force, provide the accused at a trial by summary court-martial free military counsel as a matter of policy. If the government chooses not to provide free military defense counsel to the accused, then that person may retain civilian counsel to represent them, at their own expense.
A special court-martial is the intermediate court level. It consists of a military judge, trial counsel (prosecutor), defense counsel, and a minimum of three officers sitting as a panel of court members or jury. An enlisted accused may request a court composed of at least one-third enlisted personnel. An accused may also request trial by judge alone. Regardless of the offenses involved, a special court-martial sentence is limited to no more than forfeiture of two-thirds basic pay per month for one year, and additionally for enlisted personnel, one year confinement (or a lesser amount if the offenses have a lower maximum), and/or a bad-conduct discharge. An accused before a special court-martial is entitled to free legal representation by military defense counsel, and can also retain civilian counsel at his or her expense.
A general court-martial is the highest court level. It consists of a military judge, trial counsel (prosecutor), defense counsel, and a minimum of five officers sitting as a panel of court-martial members. An enlisted accused may request a court composed of at least one-third enlisted personnel. An accused may also request trial by judge alone. In a general court-martial, the maximum punishment is that set for each offense under the Manual for Courts-Martial (MCM), and may include death (for certain offenses), confinement, a dishonorable or bad conduct discharge for enlisted personnel, a dismissal for officers, or a number of other forms of punishment. A general court-martial is the only forum that may adjudge a sentence to death. Before a case goes to a general court-martial, a pretrial investigation under Article 32 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice must be conducted, unless waived by the accused. An accused before a general court-martial is entitled to free legal representation by military defense counsel, and can also retain civilian counsel at his or her expense.
In response to the Navy's first helium-filled rigid airship Shenandoah crashing in a storm in September 1925, killing 14 of the crew, and the loss of three seaplanes on a flight from the West Coast to Hawaii, Mitchell issued a statement accusing senior leaders in the Army and Navy of incompetence and "almost treasonable administration of the national defense."
In October 1925, a charge with eight specifications was proffered against Mitchell on the direct order of President Calvin Coolidge, accusing him of violation of the 96th Article of War, an omnibus article that Mitchell's chief counsel, Congressman Frank Reid, declared to be "unconstitutional" as a violation of free speech. The court martial began in early November and lasted for seven weeks.
The youngest of the 12 judges was Major General Douglas MacArthur, who later described the order to sit on Mitchell's court-martial as "one of the most distasteful orders I ever received." Of the thirteen judges, none had aviation experience and three were removed by defense challenges for bias, including Major General Charles P. Summerall, the president of the court. The case was then presided over by Major General Robert Lee Howze. Among those who testified for Mitchell were Eddie Rickenbacker, Hap Arnold, Carl Spaatz and Fiorello La Guardia. The trial attracted significant interest, and public opinion supported Mitchell.
However, the court found the truth or falsity of Mitchell's accusations to be immaterial to the charge and on December 17, 1925, found him "guilty of all specifications and of the charge". The court suspended him from active duty for five years without pay, which President Coolidge later amended to half-pay. The generals ruling in the case wrote, "The Court is thus lenient because of the military record of the Accused during the World War."
MacArthur (who himself in 1951 was removed from duty for similar reasons) later said he had voted to acquit, and Fiorello La Guardia said that MacArthur's "not guilty" ballot had been found in the judges' anteroom. MacArthur felt "that a senior officer should not be silenced for being at variance with his superiors in rank and with accepted doctrine."
In the interim, Champeny, and his successor, Colonel John T. Corley, moved at last to punish chronic stragglers. Long overdue, the effort put an effective end to the problem, but the court-martials that followed did nothing to rehabilitate the 24th IR's reputation in the eyes of white commanders. Indeed, a sentence of death handed down against a lieutenant who had refused to return to the line only added to the aura of shame surrounding the regiment.