Thursday, March 12, 2015

A first: summary court-martial in the news

Your editor has been following military justice for some time now (don't ask how long!) but there's always something new. Here is a story from the Fayetteville Observer that is the first time he can remember a summary court-martial being featured in a newspaper article.

The headline blares: "Ft. Bragg airman gets maximum sentence over fatal training accident." He pleaded guilty to a charge of negligent homicide for running over a fellow airman with a Humvee.

Under the Manual for Courts-Martial, the maximum punishment for negligent homicide (a listed offense under Art. 134, UCMJ) is a dishonorable discharge and three years' confinement. Summary courts, like nonjudicial punishment, are intended for minor offenses. R.C.M. 1301(b). The summary court-martial portion of the Manual refers the reader to the non-judicial punishment provisions in Part V for a definition of "minor offenses," which in turn recites:
Whether an offense is minor depends on several factors: the nature of the offense and the circumstances surrounding its commission; the offender’s age, rank, duty assignment, record and experience; and the maximum sentence imposable for the offense if tried by general court-martial. Ordinarily, a minor offense is an offense which the maximum sentence imposable would not include a dishonorable discharge or confinement for longer than 1 year if tried by general court-martial. . . .
Commanders have discretion in applying the minor offenses criterion, but was this a proper disposition? Did the victim's family agree with the disposition? Were they made aware of it? One might speculate that the referral to a summary court was the result of a pretrial agreement, although the Observer's story does not say so. (If you know the answer to any or all of these questions, please comment -- but use your real name.)

Perhaps the worst part of this tragic accident is that it was utterly unnecessary:
The training scenario the unit ended up using [and in the course of which the accident occurred], which was supposed to prepare airmen for a kidnapping, hostage negotiation and execution, was something these airmen were unlikely to encounter given their duties. The squadron is a flying ambulance for evacuating sick or wounded troops.

1 comment:

  1. To misquote Clemenceau, summary justice is to justice what military music is to music. In my humble view, it should be confined to minor disciplinary infractions which do not justify any form of confinement. Anything else should be determined by a court, with right to counsel.

    In the UK, a CO can deprive a Servicemen of his liberty for up to 90 days - all done without legal counsel, before a non-lawyer CO who acts as both prosecutor and judge. Inadmissible and prejudicial evidence is admitted and cross-examination of crucial evidence cannot be expertly undertaken. Even our prisoners have more rights than our soldiers -see Ezeh and Connors -v- UK, (Applications nos. 39665/98 and 40086/98). The accused does not even have legal assistance to pay for advice from a lawyer prior to these hearings at which he can lose his liberty for so long. This is not so much a system of justice but a system of injustice!


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