An army judge rules to require a unanimous guilty verdict during a sexual assault case, sparking discussion of requiring unanimous verdicts in military court.
Military and civilian court cases operate under different sets of laws, processes, and sentencings. These differences include court proceedings and regulations where military courts do not always align with the standard set by the US Supreme Court. Supreme Court rulings do not always impact military courts as the US Constitution gives Congress the power to make rules for the military, including a military justice system that does not have the same regulations and protections for service members as civilian defendants have.
Military v. Civilian Court Verdict Requirements
For instance, the military is the one jurisdiction that does not require a unanimous vote for criminal trials. In 2020 the US Supreme court case Ramos v. Louisiana ruled that the 6th amendment requires a unanimous verdict, and non-unanimous verdicts are unconstitutional. The justification for this ruling came directly from the time that the Sixth Amendment was adopted, as the requirement for juror unanimity was accepted as a vital right.
Military appellate courts have consistently held that the 6th amendment only applies to civilian cases and the military is excluded from this constitutional requirement. The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), however, requires only a three-fourths jury vote for a conviction, and only requires a unanimous vote with cases involving capital offense charges.
Since that vote, however, military lawyers have debated whether the ruling would lead to litigation forcing military courts to also require unanimous verdicts. The case of Lt. Col. Andrew Dial has sparked further debate about the unanimous verdict requirement in military courts.
Lt. Col Andrew Dial is charged with three counts of sexual assault. Other details of the allegations have not been provided.
Unprecedented Ruling Requiring Unanimous Verdict
Judge Col. Charles Pritchard issued a ruling, as a pretrial decision, stating that a conviction by a split verdict in the sexual assault trial of the army officer, Dial, would violate his constitutional rights.
This ruling holds the court-martial to the same standards as a civilian court and distinguishes this case as the first time that a unanimous vote is required for a guilty verdict in military court, with cases not involving capital offense charges.
The Rationale of the Ruling
The unanimous verdict ruling was made after a motion was filed by the defense, requesting the court to “impose a requirement” of having a unanimous verdict to convict. The defense presented the questions prompting this motion to be related to the Fifth and Sixth Amendments. The questions presented asked:
- Does the Sixth Amendment jury trial right, with the 2020 Supreme Court decision in Ramos v. Louisiana requiring a unanimous verdict of guilty, apply to military court?
- Does the Fifth Amendment Due Process clause require a unanimous verdict of guilty?
- Does the Fifth Amendment Equal Protection guarantee require a unanimous verdict of guilty in military court-martial since all 50 states and all other parts of the Federal government require a unanimous verdict of guilty?
The Sixth Amendment was found to be irrelevant to the case, and the question presented by the defense regarding the Sixth Amendment was answered by the court in the negative.
The first question presented regarding the Fifth Amendment was also answered in the negative by the court.
The second question presented regarding the Fifth Amendment was answered in the positive and found to be relevant to the case.
Pritchard explained that Ramos did not apply to courts-martial due to the precedent that the Sixth Amendment does not apply to service members. However, Judge Pritchard agreed that a non-unanimous verdict infringes on Dial’s 5th amendment rights to equal protection. He concludes that there is no rational basis for Congress to treat Service members differently than civilians on the issue of verdict voting requirements.
He goes on to compare and contrast civilian and military criminal justice and its application. Judge Pritchard notes all the similarities between the two systems of justice, observing that the standards gap between civilian and court-martial was decreasing consistently. The main difference that Pritchard notes, is the difference in purpose between civilian and military prosecution.
The primary reason for the prosecution in the military is readiness for Warfighting, while the primary reason for civilian prosecution is rooted in justice. The Judge resolves the distinctions by merely stating that these are distinctions without a difference as it relates to voting requirements. He went on to explain in detail why a non-unanimous voting requirement does not further the military mission and that a unanimous voting requirement would not hinder the military mission. Thus, in short, the differences in voting requirements violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 5th Amendment.
The unprecedented ruling by Pritchard resulted in the military prosecutors requesting an Army appeals court to temporarily stop the trial. The Army Court of Criminal Appeals approved the request to pause the trial. The trial will remain paused waiting on an appeal of the unanimous verdict order.
The prosecutors argue that requiring a unanimous decision in military court can result in more hung juries and retrials. Experts say that the order will, however, be difficult for the government to appeal in this case.
The motion filed by the defense team, asking for unanimous verdicts to be required, is not unique. The decision made by Judge Pritchard is, however, as these motions have been largely denied by military judges. The issue is expected to work its way through appeals courts.
However, an appeals court ruling is not likely to make the unanimous guilty verdicts decisions unanimous throughout the military court system. That change will either be decided by Congress or the US Supreme Court. Military Courts are slowly, as mentioned by Pritchard, becoming more similar to the civilian court system. This is especially true with sexual assault cases such as Dials.
A new defense policy bill recently signed by President Joe Biden will move sexual assault cases and related crimes from being prosecuted by military commanders to be handled under independent prosecutors. There is even a push to move all serious crimes out of the chain of command.
Defend Yourself Against Accusations of Sexual Assault
Dial’s case may set a precedent for the future, however, as of now unanimous verdicts will not be mandated throughout the court system unless ruled by the judge for a specific case. It is critical to have representation that understands the complexities and changes of military law. If you are being charged with sexual assault, Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law can defend you with vigor and would be happy to represent you. His record of achieving desired outcomes for service members around the world will help you formulate a credible and strong defense.
If you or someone you love is accused of sexual assault, call us toll-free at 833-884-2715 or 254-853-0064 today to speak directly with Joseph L. Jordan about your case.