Military courts play a major role in upholding order within the armed forces. As in civilian courts, military courts rely on juries to render a verdict of guilty or innocent.
However, military juries and civilian juries differ in numerous ways. The dynamics of military courtrooms come with a unique set of challenges and issues.
Judge over jury
The number of military trials is at a historic low, but the number of cases may still seem high to a civilian. The Joint Service Committee reported 1361 general and special cases tried in fiscal year 2021. A military jury only tried 22% of these cases; a judge decided the remainder.
Composition of military juries
One of the primary issues in military court is the jury composition. Service members make up a military jury. This may raise concerns about impartiality, especially in cases where the accused and jurors share the same branch or command. Real or perceived pressure to conform to cultural expectations could compromise the defendant’s right to a fair trial.
Size of military juries
Civilian juries consist of twelve individuals. Military juries have only five members. For capital crimes, a guilty verdict requires a unanimous decision. In civilian court, this means twelve people deciding guilt; a military jury only requires five.
Rank and influence
Another critical issue in military courts is the influence of rank. In the military hierarchy, rank carries significant weight. It can be challenging for lower-ranking jurors to voice dissenting opinions in the presence of higher-ranking jurors. This power dynamic can potentially skew the decision-making process, leading to unfair verdicts.
Influence of command
In some cases, military commanders may have a say in the selection of jurors. This introduces the risk of undue command influence. This is where the chain of command indirectly or directly affects the jury’s decision-making process. Such influence can undermine the integrity of the trial and jeopardize the accused’s right to a fair trial.
Secrecy and classified information
Military trials often involve classified information and sensitive national security concerns. This can limit transparency in court proceedings. The military court may restrict the jury from classified aspects of the trial. This can create challenges with fully understanding the case.
Military and civilian trials are handled very differently. The juries in armed forces trials are designed to suit their purpose, but still experience the potential for challenges and conflicts of interest.