What You Should Know About Civilian vs. Military Trials

Civilian cases require full disclosure of evidence, court proceedings, court documents and search warrants. Prosecutors may also speak freely with the press about them, but in military cases, restrictions are placed on the public in regard to the evidence and a variety documents related to the case. To safeguard the rights of the defendant, judges may also deny public access to a military case, and before speaking to the press, prosecutors must obtain the judge’s permission.

How military and civilian cases differ

The waiting time for a civilian case to be tried is generally longer than it is for a military case. Both types are often backed up in the system, but the problem is more extensive with civilian trials.

When a civilian case is tried in federal court, that often results in a harsh punishment related to the mandatory sentencing guidelines. This option is also available in the military justice system, but the judges seldom decide to use it. For example, no one has been tried for the death penalty in military court in 46 years.

In the civilian system, the grand jury panel has the task of deciding if sufficient evidence exists for the case to be tried. In the military system, an Article 32 hearing is held, and an investigation officer decides if the case should go to trial. However, the defense may be present at this hearing, which may benefit the accused party.

Other differences between the two systems include the following:

-In a federal case, evidence obtained from unreasonable search and seizure can be withheld, but this is not done in military tribunals. In addition, the Secretary of Defense has the power to admit such evidence.

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– A trial held in federal court must begin within 70 days following indictment, but the right to a speedy trial does not exist in military commissions.

– In every case, a civilian verdict must be unanimous, but the verdict in a military trial only has to be unanimous if it is a capital case. Otherwise, a two-thirds vote can result in a conviction.

– Second-hand evidence, also known as hearsay, is inadmissible in federal court, but this does not apply in a military trial.

Handling of 911 terrorist cases

Advocates of military commissions maintain that prosecuting terrorists in a civilian court is unsatisfactory because:

– the possibility of acquittal is greater,

– the evidentiary rules might expose state secrets,

– possible security risks related to the trial are unacceptable, and

– too much attention might be given to the various interrogation methods used in questioning the defendants while they were in custody.

Those who are in favor of a civilian trial point out that the American justice system has successfully handled major terrorism cases in the past. This is due, in part, to the fact that federal law prohibits the revelation of national security secrets while legal proceedings are being conducted. They also note that more terrorists have been convicted in federal court than in military tribunals.

Kenny Alvarez is a veteran’s advisor and also writes for militaryeducation.org, a site with details on education benefits for all arms of the service. Army tuition assistance is just one of the many avenues explored, in addition to its Army loan repayment program.

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