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COURTS-MARTIAL are the oldest system of justice in the United States, dating to the Continental Congress's decision in 1789 to continue the British system. One of America's most famous courts-martial, that of Benedict Arnold for using troops for his own personal gain, even predates that decision by ten years. The modern legal basis of courts-martial is the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), adopted in 1950, and the Manual for Courts-Martial issued in the following year. Although the UCMJ is normally considered to be stricter than civilian laws, in a court-martial the defendant has the right to choose trial by a judge or by a jury of peers at equivalent or higher rank. Enlisted defendants also have the right to a jury that is constituted of at least one-third enlisted personnel.

There are three levels of court-martial: the summary court-martial, which can impose penalties of up to one month in prison; the special court-martial, which can impose penalties of up to six months; and the general court-martial, reserved for the most serious offenses, which can impose any penalty, including death. Since World War II, courts-martial have come to look more like civil trials. Professionally trained military lawyers, who must be qualified to try cases before a state's highest court, must be present at all general courts-martial. Review procedures have also been modified to come more into line with civilian practices. Many of these reforms were enacted to protect the rights of enlisted personnel. Since 1950, commanders can no longer impose confinements of more than one week without calling a court-martial.

Several courts-martial have become American causes célèbres. The court-martial of William (Billy) Mitchell in 1925 was a national media event. Mitchell, a brigadier general in the Army Air Corps, was tried for his outspoken criticism of the senior military leadership's alleged negligence in developing airpower. Although he was found guilty by his peers and resigned from the army, his trial highlighted the problems of entrenched bureaucracy and the army's failure to fully understand the new technology of aviation.

The court-martial of Lieutenant William Calley in 1970–1971 also became a national media event. Calley was charged with three counts of premeditated murder in the My Lai massacre of 1968, in which as many as four hundred Vietnamese civilians were killed. After a court-martial that lasted four months, Calley was found guilty and sentenced to life at hard labor. His commanding officer, Captain Ernest Medina, was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter (failure to exercise proper control over his men engaged in unlawful homicide) due to a mistake By the military judge. The Calley trial was the most care-fully followed court-martial in American history.

These famous cases were, of course, exceptions. The majority of courts-martial deal with the day-to-day jurisprudence of military communities. Over time, they have lost Many of the features that distinguished them from civilian trials and today they are broadly similar to civilian counterparts.


Byrne, Edward. Military Law: A Handbook for the Navy and Marine Corps. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1981.

DiMona, Joseph. Great Court-Martial Cases. New York: Grossett and Dunlap, 1972.

Michael S.Neiberg

See alsoMilitary Law ; Uniform Code of Military Justice .