Lawmakers and women advocacy groups were shocked when a three-star general threw out the conviction and sentence of an Air Force lieutenant colonel convicted of sexual assault in Europe. But the general's apparent authority to do that is just one way in which the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) differs from civilian law. Here are some examples:
— Military: Under Article 60 of the UCMJ, the "convening authority" — usually a unit commander -- convenes a trial and later has "sole discretion" to dismiss any charge by setting aside a guilty finding. Authority to change the findings and sentence "is a matter of command prerogative." There is an appeals process in military as well as civilian law, but when an Article 60 is made, as in this case, the issue never gets to the appeals court.
— Civilian: The only corresponding action would be if the governor of a state or the president of the United States pardoned the defendant after the conviction.
— Military: An "investigating officer" decides whether prosecutors have enough evidence to bring a suspect to trial and this is done in a court session called "an Article 32 hearing."
— Civilian: This corresponds to a preliminary hearing in civilian courts which are held before a judge.
PURPOSE OF LAW
— Military: According to the "Manual for Courts-Martial" rule book, the purpose of military law is to promote justice, maintain order and foster military efficiency, all in the interest of national security.
— Civilian: The purpose of criminal prosecutions is to establish guilt for an alleged violation of law. Things that might be grounds for firing or a reprimand in the civilian world — such as being chronically late for work, or adultery with a co-worker — might be subject to military prosecution because the system also is set up to promote order and discipline.
— Military: Military prosecutors represent the government. All defendants are assigned military defense attorneys, but those facing serious charges often retain civilian lawyers to lead their defense.
— Civilian: Criminal defendants are entitled to free legal counsel only if they cannot afford their own lawyer.