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What to Expect With Your Court Martial

June 6, 2024

If you are facing a court martial in the military justice system, you are likely feeling a lot of stress and uncertainty about what lies ahead. Being accused of a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) is a serious matter. The outcome of your case can impact your freedom, military career, benefits, and future.

While you may feel lost and unsure where to turn, know that you don’t have to face this difficult time alone. An experienced court martial lawyer can guide you through the process and fight to protect your rights and interests.

Let’s review what you can expect as your court martial case unfolds and why working with a skilled attorney is so important.

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The Military Justice System

On the US flag rests a pen and a book labeled "MILITARY LAW".

When a service member is accused of a crime, the case falls under the military justice system rather than the civilian criminal justice system. Some key differences are that your case will be handled by military officials and judges rather than civilian authorities, and your rights and legal protections come from the UCMJ rather than the civilian penal code.

The UCMJ is a federal law enacted by Congress that defines criminal offenses for service members and establishes the procedures for investigating, charging, and trying accused personnel. Some of the most common offenses prosecuted at court martial include drug crimes, assault, sexual crimes, larceny (theft), insubordination, and AWOL (absence without leave).

If you’ve been accused of an offense, your commanding officer may begin by conducting an inquiry to gather facts about what happened. Depending on the seriousness of the accusations and the evidence, your commander may address the matter through administrative action (such as a reprimand) or non-judicial punishment under Article 15 of the UCMJ. Article 15 proceedings are for minor offenses and can result in punishment such as extra duties, restriction, forfeiture of pay, or reduction in rank.

For more serious crimes, your commander may refer the case to the next higher level of command with a recommendation to pursue a court martial. Here’s a brief look at the types of courts-martial:

Summary Court Martial

A single commissioned officer handles these proceedings and are for relatively minor crimes. The maximum punishment is 30 days’ confinement, forfeiture of 2/3 pay for one month, and reduction in rank. You do not have a right to an attorney but can hire one at your own expense.

Special Court Martial

The court martial consists of a military judge, at least three officers sitting as a panel (jury), and a trial counsel (prosecutor). These courts martial handle more serious offenses, with a maximum punishment of 12 months confinement, forfeiture of 2/3 pay for 12 months, reduction in rank, and a bad-conduct discharge.

General Court Martial

Reserved for the most serious offenses, these proceedings consist of a military judge, at least five officers on the panel, a trial counsel, and a defense counsel. Punishments can include forfeiture of pay/allowances, dishonorable discharge, and lengthy prison sentences, including life in prison.

The Court Martial Process

After your case is referred to court martial, the process will follow these basic steps:

Referral and Service of Charges

The court martial process begins when charges are officially referred and served on the accused service member. This means that a high-ranking commanding officer has reviewed the evidence and believes there is probable cause to support the charges.

You will receive a charge sheet detailing the specific UCMJ articles you allegedly violated and the key facts supporting each charge. At this point, the case is headed to trial, and it’s best to begin working with a military defense attorney to protect your rights and build your case.

Article 32 Hearing

In the concept of military law, soldiers have rights and face potential punishment. In a scenario, a soldier from a European Union country uses a virtual touchscreen to press a button labeled "scales."

Before a case can proceed to a general court martial, an Article 32 hearing must occur. This hearing is similar to a grand jury proceeding in the civilian court system. The purpose is for an investigating officer to review the evidence and determine if there is probable cause to support the charges.

The government will present evidence during the hearing and call witnesses to testify. The defense has the right to cross-examine the government’s witnesses, call their own witnesses, and present their own evidence to challenge probable cause.

While the Article 32 hearing is often described as a “rubber stamp” for the government, it serves important purposes for the defense. The hearing allows your lawyer to review the government’s evidence, lock witnesses into their testimony, and identify weaknesses in the case. Your attorney may also present evidence of an alibi, self-defense, or other legal justifications. If the investigating officer finds a lack of probable cause, they may recommend that some or all charges be dismissed.

It’s important to take the Article 32 hearing seriously and be thoroughly prepared. The testimony and evidence you present can be used for or against you later at trial. Work closely with your military attorney to put your best foot forward at this preliminary hearing.


The arraignment is typically the first court appearance in a court martial proceeding. The military judge will formally read the charges against you, ask how you plead to each charge, and specify whether you are guilty or not guilty. In most cases, your attorney will advise you to plead not guilty to preserve your legal options and rights as the case progresses.

The arraignment is usually a brief hearing, and no evidence is presented. However, this court appearance deals with housekeeping matters and sets important dates. The judge will put the court martial on the calendar and schedule future hearings for motions, trials, and other proceedings. Take notes and understand what will happen next in your case.


Hearings Before the trial begins, the military judge will hold hearings on pretrial motions. These motions may deal with various legal issues that can significantly impact the outcome of your case.

For example, your attorney may file a motion to suppress evidence seized during an unlawful search or a statement you made without being advised of your rights. If successful, this can result in key evidence being excluded from trial, which may force the government to dismiss the charges.

The prosecution may also file pretrial motions, such as asking the judge to allow certain evidence to be admitted or to prevent the defense from making certain arguments. Motion hearings allow both sides to make legal arguments and persuade the judge to rule in their favor.

The outcome of pretrial motions can significantly influence how your court martial unfolds. Winning key motions can lead to a more favorable plea agreement or increase your chances of an acquittal at trial. Ensure your attorney thoroughly reviews the evidence and files all appropriate motions to protect your rights.


In the context of law, an image might depict a gavel alongside a military uniform on a wooden table, with space provided for text.

If your court martial proceeds to a trial, your attorney will present the facts and evidence of your case to a panel (jury) of officers or a military judge.

The trial process includes:

  • Jury selection: If you have elected to be tried by a panel, the first step is questioning and selecting the service members who will decide your case.
  • Opening statements: The attorneys for both sides will make opening statements to outline their respective cases and what they expect the evidence to show. Your lawyer may also use this as an opportunity to plant seeds of doubt.
  • Witness testimony: The prosecution and defense will call witnesses and introduce evidence to support their case. Your attorney will cross-examine government witnesses to expose weaknesses and inconsistencies in their testimony.
  • Closing arguments: After all evidence is presented, the attorneys will make closing arguments to persuade the panel or judge to see the case their way. Your lawyer will highlight the government’s failure to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • Deliberations and findings: The panel or judge will then deliberate in private to decide whether you are guilty or not guilty of each charge. A finding of not guilty results in an acquittal and the dismissal of the charge.

The case will proceed to the sentencing phase if you are found guilty of any charges.

Throughout the trial, your military defense lawyer will work to hold the government to its burden of proof and introduce doubt about the allegations against you. The stronger your attorney’s trial skills, the better your chances of a positive outcome.


If you are convicted of any charges at trial, the court martial will move into the sentencing phase. This part of the proceeding determines your punishment. The prosecution will present aggravating evidence and arguments to secure a harsher sentence. This may include evidence of the negative impact of the crime, your prior disciplinary record, or other unfavorable information.

Your attorney will counter this by presenting mitigating evidence and arguments for leniency. This may include testimony about your good military character, personal background, family responsibilities, mental health issues, or expressions of remorse.

You can make an unsworn statement to the court in the military justice system. Your lawyer will prepare a compelling allocution to express your regret, discuss what you’ve learned, and ask for a second chance.

After hearing the evidence and arguments from both sides, the judge or panel will deliberate to decide on an appropriate sentence. Depending on the offenses, a wide range of punishments are possible, including confinement, forfeiture of pay and allowances, reduction in rank, punitive discharge, and more. Having an experienced attorney fighting for you can be crucial to minimizing your sentence and avoiding the worst-case scenario.


Even if you are convicted and sentenced at a court martial, you still have legal options to fight for justice. If you believe there were legal errors in your case, you have the right to appeal to higher military courts.

The first step is appealing to your branch’s Court of Criminal Appeals. A panel of senior JAG attorneys will review the record to determine if legal errors influenced the outcome of your case. These can include allowing improper evidence, excluding favorable evidence, incorrect jury instructions, ineffective assistance of counsel, or an unreasonable sentence.

If you lose at the branch court level, you can appeal your case to the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF). This is the highest military appeals court and consists of five judges appointed by the President. The CAAF chooses which cases to hear and has the discretion to correct legal errors.

In certain cases, you can appeal all the way to the United States Supreme Court. However, this is rare, and the nation’s highest court accepts only a small handful of military cases each year.

Choosing the Right Military Defense Attorney

In a law concept image, a close-up shows a man in a military uniform sitting at a table indoors, holding a gavel.

With so much at stake in a court martial, choosing defense counsel is one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make. You need an attorney with the legal knowledge, trial skills, and commitment to fight aggressively on your behalf.

Here are some key qualities to look for:

  • In-depth knowledge of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and military case law
  • Extensive experience defending service members in court martial and administrative proceedings
  • Familiarity with the nuances of your particular branch of the armed forces
  • Strong trial skills in cross-examination, legal arguments, and presenting evidence
  • Ability to communicate clearly and persuasively both in and out of the courtroom
  • Responsive, available, and willing to put in long hours on your case
  • Passion for standing up for the rights of accused military personnel
  • Sensitivity to the stress and emotions you are experiencing during this ordeal

While a court martial may seem like an uphill battle, an experienced military defense lawyer can work toward the best possible outcome, by putting forth a strong, strategic defense, your attorney may avoid a conviction, minimize the sentence, and even save your military career. Don’t face the prosecution alone – start fighting back today with a skilled court martial defense lawyer in your corner.

Contact a Military Lawyer to Protect Your Future

If you are facing a court martial, don’t wait to start building your defense. The sooner you involve an experienced military lawyer, the better your chances of securing a favorable outcome and protecting your future. Reach out today for a free and confidential consultation about your case.

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