Are you familiar with the civilian judicial process? Once you enter the military, you have to throw out most of what you know. After all, the military operates under its own set of rules and guidelines, making it unique from civilian courts.
However, a pivotal change currently being discussed may soon align the military justice system more closely with its civilian counterpart: a requirement for unanimous jury verdicts in court-martial convictions. The latest amendment added to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) could be a watershed moment for military members facing legal challenges.
The Current State of Court-Martial Convictions
Under the existing Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), only three-fourths of a jury—formally called a panel—need to agree for a conviction or sentencing to occur. In contrast, the Sixth Amendment of the US Constitution requires unanimous jury verdicts in civilian criminal trials. This difference was made glaringly obvious after the Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that unanimous verdicts were the “gold standard of justice for all Americans”—except those serving in the military.
What the New Amendment Entails
The amendment to the NDAA aims to bridge this gap between the military and civilian justice systems. If enacted, it would require “unanimous concurrence” for convictions and punishments in court-martial trials. While this legislation is still pending—requiring reconciliation with the Senate’s version of the NDAA—it marks a significant step. The amendment’s sponsor, Rep. Matt Gaetz, hasn’t publicly commented on his motivations, but the bill comes after years of legislative attempts to make this change.
Skeptics within the military community worry that requiring unanimous verdicts could delay the judicial process or make it susceptible to unlawful command influence. There’s also the argument that such a requirement could affect the rate of convictions in cases like sexual assault. However, these concerns have been refuted by military law experts who believe that justice and due process should take precedence over expedience and conviction rates.
What This Means for Service Members
If you’re a service member accused of a crime under the UCMJ, this amendment could profoundly impact your case. It enhances the standard of proof, providing additional protection against wrongful convictions. Numerous experts agree that it’s high time for the military to adopt unanimous verdicts.
Last Year’s Landmark Case
In a recent case in Germany, a military judge ruled that a unanimous verdict was necessary in the court-martial of an Army officer charged with attempting to sexually abuse a child. However, the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces disagreed, stating that Congress had never mandated unanimous verdicts in military courts. The pending NDAA amendment could change this narrative, setting a new precedent for future cases.
The Uniqueness of Military Juries
It’s worth noting that military juries—or “court member panels”—already differ substantially from civilian juries. These panels are comprised of commissioned officers or enlisted personnel, and the selection process for these panel members varies between military branches. Accused individuals also have the option to be tried by an officer panel, an enlisted panel, or a judge alone.
Secure Expert Legal Counsel
Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law, specializes in representing military service members in court-martial cases. Mr. Jordan offers unparalleled experience and a deep understanding of the intricacies of the UCMJ. He served in the armed forces in his youth and obtained experience as an Army JAG officer before becoming a military defense attorney over a decade ago.
If you’re facing accusations under the UCMJ, it’s crucial to have a seasoned advocate like Mr. Jordan on your side. Don’t leave your future to chance—call us toll-free at 800-580-8034 or 254-221-6411 today to speak directly with Mr. Jordan about your case.