If you are a recently convicted military service member, you may wonder if you can appeal a court-martial conviction. The short answer is yes. The military has built-in protections for convicted service members, including the ability to appeal a decision, which may reduce or eliminate your sentence. The rules that apply depend on which type of court-martial you underwent.
Appealing a Summary Court-Martial Conviction
A summary court-martial is the lowest level of formal military court. Unlike more serious proceedings, you do not have the right to appeal a summary court-martial conviction to a military appeals court. Instead, you can appeal to the next higher level of command within five days of receiving your sentence. While you await a decision, you can request that your punishment be delayed.
When reviewing your case, the senior commander may affirm the original conviction and leave the punishment as-is, reduce the punishment, or eliminate it entirely. Rest assured that the commander cannot increase your punishment.
If you are not satisfied with the senior commander’s decision, you can ask the Judge Advocate General (JAG) to review your case. If that doesn’t pan out, you can appeal to the Board of Correction for Military Records.
Appealing a Special or General Court-Martial Conviction
A special court-martial doles out punishments for misdemeanor offenses, making it the mid-range military court. A general court-martial is the highest level of legal proceedings in the military in which felony crimes are addressed.
Convictions at either of these levels proceed through the military court of appeals. You have the right to a free military defense attorney, though you may want to hire a more experienced court-martial lawyer to increase the chances of winning your appeal.
Convening Authority Review
Before your case proceeds to a military court of appeals, the convening authority will automatically review it. This person, who referred the case to a court-martial in the first place, cannot increase the imposed sentence but may reduce it or dismiss the conviction. The convening authority can also choose to consult a judge advocate to help guide their decision.
Military Court of Appeals Review
If you are not satisfied with the convening authority’s review, you may proceed with appealing to the military court of appeals for your branch of service. The four courts of criminal appeals in the military include:
- Army Court of Criminal Appeals
- Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals
- Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals
- Coast Guard Court of Criminal Appeals
The relevant court will automatically review your case if the punishments include a year or more of confinement, a negative discharge, or the death penalty. Courts also have the option to review other cases at their discretion.
If your case is not selected for automatic review, you can ask the JAG to submit your case, but such petitions are rarely successful. Another option granted by Article 69 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) is to ask the JAG to review your case.
What Goes into a Military Court of Appeals Review?
The military court of appeals completes the following while reviewing your case:
- Investigate any legal mistakes or fact-finding errors that may have occurred throughout the proceedings.
- Determine whether you were adequately proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
- Assess any guilty plea that led to a punitive discharge or at least one year of confinement to ensure you pleaded guilty voluntarily and never claimed innocence during the proceedings.
- Evaluate the level of punishment imposed for the determined conviction. The court can reduce or eliminate your sentence but cannot increase it.
Appealing to the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces
If you are not satisfied with the military court of appeals’ decision, the next step is to appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. This court automatically reviews any case the JAG submits on the grounds of improper sentencing or legal errors made by the lower court. It also reviews any case involving the death penalty. Again, you can ask the JAG to submit your case if it is not automatically selected for review, but this is very rarely granted.
All other appeals are granted on a discretionary basis. Your military attorney will need to file a petition persuading the court that “good cause” justifies a review. The court may agree to hear your case or choose to decline it.
Understand the scope of review by the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces is limited. It does not consider the facts or identify factual errors. All it does is look for mistakes made by the lower court of appeals when applying military law to your situation.
Other Options for Appealing a Court-Martial Conviction
Once you run out of options for review, there are still a few more things you can try:
- File a writ of habeas corpus with the court of appeals for your branch of the military or the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. Such petitions are usually only filed under extraordinary circumstances when no other form of relief exists.
- Appeal to the United States Supreme Court. As the highest court in the U.S., the Supreme Court has incredible discretion about which cases to hear. It can even turn down cases involving the death penalty. Plus, not all military court of appeals decisions are eligible for appeal to the Supreme Court.
- Request clemency from the convening authority, JAG, or clemency board for your branch of service. You have the right to petition for clemency at any point in the appeals process or once it has concluded. If granted, clemency can reduce your punishment or set aside the conviction entirely. You are only eligible to pursue clemency if your case meets specific criteria. Higher sentences are more likely to qualify, often after a portion of the sentence has been served.
For the best chance of appealing your conviction, you need a knowledgeable military defense lawyer to guide you through the court-martial appeals process. Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law, is highly qualified to represent you. As a former Army JAG officer, Mr. Jordan is committed to serving you and defending your rights. We will stop at nothing to ensure your side of the story gets the attention it deserves.